Parashat Pinchas to the Rebbes: To avoid chaos, leave a successor

The Blessed Transmission of Leadership From Moses to Joshua

Jewish leaders must transcend themselves by grooming and empowering new leaders for the next generation. We see this in the transfer of power from Moses to Joshua in this week’s parsha and in Moses’ request to God that a new leader be selected to lead the nation. Our rabbis tell us that Moses at first wanted his own son’s to be appointed to his position. He wanted to “hand select” the next leader.

For this reason, the Midrash notes, (See Rashi 27:16) it was after God permitted the daughters of Zelofchad to inherit from their father, (27:1-11) that Moshe (Moses) makes the request of God that a successor be appointed in the hope that his sons would be tapped for leadership. t was not to be.  God tells Moshe, “Yehoshua (Joshua) will be the next leader,” not any of Moshe’s children. (Numbers 27:18) The Talmud states that Torah leadership is not automatically inherited. (Talmud Nedarim 71a)

Several lessons can be learned from the way Moshe transfers leadership to Yehoshua; First: Once told by God that his sons were unworthy to succeed him, Moshe unselfishly transfers the power to Yehoshua.  Note, that whereas God told Moshe to “lay your hand (in the singular) on him [Yehoshua] , (27:18), Moshe places both hands on him. (27:23)  Rashi makes this point by maintaining that Moshe laid his hands on Yeshoshua “generously, in much greater measure than he was commanded.”

Second: Whereas God tells Moshe to “put some of his honor upon him [Yehoshua],”(Numbers 27:20) there is no mention that Moshe does so.  This perhaps because Moshe was of such humble nature, that he felt unworthy — only God can give such honor. Alternatively, Moshe wanted Yehoshua to do it his way. While Moshe had given Yehoshua a sound foundation, Moshe understood that every leader is blessed with a unique style. Yehoshua should not become Moshe’s clone.

Third: Moshe genuinely desires that Yehoshua receive a better lot than he did. Hence, Moshe tells God that the new leader be able “to lead them out, and…bring them in.” (Numbers 27:17)  This, the Midrash understands to mean that Moshe hoped that unlike himself, the next leader would not only be permitted to begin his task by moving the Jews out, but also be allowed to conclude his mission by taking the people into the land of Israel. (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:16) Even Moshe could not do it all.  Yehoshua would complete that which Moshe started, that which even Moshe could not complete.

Jewish leadership today is all too often lacking the humility and dedication of our first rabbi, Moshe Rabbenu. Leaders all too often do not prepare during their time of leadership for the next generation. It is as if they think they will live forever. This is a major failing. In this week’s portion the Torah describes the process of Moshe’s transfer of power to Yehoshua to encourage Jewish leaders to be true leaders. The Torah wants them to recognize that real leadership requires the foresight and caring to help the next generation of Jewish leaders take their rightful place and that they will be most successful if the older generation encourages them to succeed.

True Jewish leaders place “both hands” on their successors. They do everything possible to avoid an absence or vacuum in leadership and encourage the new generation to venture into areas that they were unsuccessful at reaching. This is true even when the new leader is not the first choice of the previous leader. As in: Moses thought of having his child take his place.

Giving another leader precedence over one’s own choice is even more difficult than giving precedence to another over oneself. The Midrash says that Joshua was the people’s choice so Moses agreed to it wholeheartedly. He did not insist on creating dynasty of “Rabbenus” by means of installing his own sons as successors, rather he accepted the people’s choice as the most suitable candidate. In other words: The next Rebbe need not be from the family; he could be “the people’s choice” as is clearly taught by this parsha.

Not grooming the next generation has been a source of downfall throughout the ages for organizations. Recent examples include the Lubavitcher and the Satmar and Bobover Chasidic sects in Brooklyn where the absence of a clear transfer of leadership has created chaos in those communities.

Two of the most stark examples of the chaos generated by a lack of leadership are evident in our generation. The first is the Breslover Chasidic sect which did not appoint a Rebbe at the death of their controversial leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. After his death the Chasidim took on the custom of visiting his grave in Uman during Rosh Hashana because he had assured them that if they did so he would intervene and remove them from gehinom (hell) regardless of their sins. They also took on the custom of bowing to his empty chair and on occasion call his chair to the Torah as if he were alive.

One of his most famous Chasidim Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser (1888-1994) claimed to have received a “petek” (letter from heaven) from the Rebbe Rav Nachman who had died over 100 years earlier. The handwritten letter was signed using Rav Nachman’s name as Na Nach Nachm Nachman MeUman using the syllables of his name and the location of his grave. His followers continue to now chant this name as a form of prayer which they feel connects them to their absent leader. This is very common sight in Israel and other Jewish communities and is often woven into large kippot worn by his followers.

The second is the common belief by the majority of the Lubavitcher Chabad sect that their now dead Rabbi was in fact the Mashiach. No leader was appointed after him, but instead his followers flock to his grave in Queens which is open 24 hours and 7 days a week to place letters to the Rabbi on his grave and to pray there. Many also visit the grave of his wife who is buried in the same cemetery right near the Ohel structure around his grave. His ‘meshichist’ followers also consult him by asking questions out loud and then picking a book of his letters off a shelf and opening it at random, to read letters written to others during his lifetime. But according to believers, his letters respond to current issues as if he were still alive.

Pictures of the Rebbe of Lubavitch can now be found in many homes, and cars and businesses; they are a common part of Jewish life. They have unfortunately been taken as a form of good luck charm to attract blessing or prosperity upon those who exhibit the picture. In fact some of his “meshichist” followers claim that he is in fact not dead or that he will return to life as the embodied and long awaited Mashiach.

Of course this is contrary to basic concepts of Judaism and is clearly presented in the Maimonides Code which this sect is particularly fond of; “if a man who was suspected of being the Messiah were to die or be killed, it would then be clear that this was not the awaited Messiah” (Hilchot Melachim Laws of Kings Chapter 11).

It is obvious to us that these activities are a result of the chaos and desperation created at the loss of visionary leaders, where a cult of personality has formed around them and then all of a sudden a vacuum of power emerges at their death. All of these activities are clearly frowned upon by the Torah and we can see that Moses took steps to avoid all of these that would fall into the category of a cult of personality.

Upon returning from Mount Sinai, he covered his face with a mask. Most explain this in relation to the glow of the rays of light that emitted from his face after the divine revelation at Sinai, but perhaps he was trying to communicate that his message wasn’t about him, it was about what he wanted to teach us. When Moses died, his grave was hidden so it’s impossible to visit it. But today the cult of personality around the ‘Rebbes’ who purport to teach us the revelation of Moses seems to violate these simple principles that our prophet instituted by his own example.

Moses the humblest man who ever lived and prophet of Judaism made sure that he left a successor and did so very nobly hoping that Joshua would succeed where he had not. The most humble person ever to live was without envy and graciously transferred power to the other. Humility must be the key to this ability to transfer and build beyond our years. Let us accept his behavior as an example of best Jewish practice.

About the Author
Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas (“Manny”), grew up in a traditional Sephardic home, born to parents of Cuban Sefardic ancestry who came to America after the Cuban Revolution in 1960. He was born and raised in Miami , Florida. Rabbi Viñas has Rabbinical ordination from Kollel Agudath Achim.
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