J.J Gross

Rejecting gerontocracy, and a Haftarah that seeks a healthy medium (Vaethanan)


The forced retirement of Moshe – the case against gerontocracy

G-d rebuffs and rebukes Moshe for his repeated requests to lead the Bnei Israel into the Eretz Israel. Yet Moshe does not seem to take any responsibility for this seemingly cruel decision, going so far as to blame the People for his misfortune.

וַֽיהוָ֥ה הִתְאַנַּף־בִּ֖י עַל־דִּבְרֵיכֶ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֤י עָבְרִי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וּלְבִלְתִּי־בֹא֙ אֶל־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַֽחֲלָֽה

“And G-d was angered with me because of your deeds, and swore that I would not cross the Jordan” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:21).

Earlier Moshe says;

וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י

“And G-d was enraged with me because of you, and did not listen to me …” (3:26).

This, at least, is the conventional translation of “ויתעבר ‘ה בי למענכם”

I would like to suggest a different translation here, namely; ויתעבר ‘ה בי – and G-d decided to pass over me – למענכם – for your sake

In other words, Moshe acknowledges, perhaps grudgingly, that G-d has decided he is no longer the man for the job.  That after forty plus years of leadership, the aged Moshe is no longer up to the task of energizing and leading a nation as it invades, conquers and establishes itself in its new home. Fresh blood is needed. Younger blood … A man in his prime who is less rooted in nomadic ways, more of a technocrat and field marshal.

(It is worth noting that the passing of Moshe seems to be met with indifference on the part of the Bnei Israel, and they are sanguine about the naming of Yehoshua to replace him. This is in starkest contrast to the deaths of Miriam and Aharon which were both followed by prolonged, spontaneous community-wide mourning.  Clearly, by the time of his death, Moshe no longer enjoyed the confidence of the People. I suspect he had lost their trust when he struck the rock twice. They got the message very clearly that they were the object of his rage, and the rock he had struck was a proxy for themselves.  As I pointed out in my notes on Parshat Hukkat [Two Strikes and Moshe is Out] Moshe is Rabbeinu, Moshe is our teacher. And once a teacher strikes a pupil twice, the relationship is pretty much over.)

Hence the question is what to do with Moshe.  After all the Torah has no mandatory retirement age, nor does it offer any rules of succession during a leader’s lifetime. This would naturally lead Israel into rule by a gerontocracy which can only result in political, religious, economic and military paralysis.

So what then would the Bnei Israel do with an ancient Moshe looking over the shoulder of the younger Yehoshua, second-guessing his every move?  What would Yehoshua do with his revered, but no longer capable, mentor breathing down his neck?  How would the Bnei Israel handle the inevitable conflict of being torn between the desire for progress and the hovering presence of a relic from a different era?

Thus Moshe accepts, albeit bitterly, the fact that he is being permanently sidelined for the sake of the nation, and not (only) because of any past missteps, be they his or those of the Children of Israel.

Today we live in eerily parallel times, when the ultra-Orthodox are in the thrall and grip of a gerontocracy whose singular achievement has been its ability to outlive and outlast its peers.

Out of touch with the real world, they are often oblivious to what is going on in the street. Frequently, their names are used to advance agendas that can be charitably described as socially, politically and economically destructive, and, more honestly, as desecrations of G-d’s name. Such nonagenarian and centenarian rabbis continue to rule in name, while others manipulate them to serve catastrophic agendas.

Perhaps the time has come to tell these rabbis; “רב לך אל תוסף דבר” – You’ve had enough, it is time to stop talking. Then, if it is not too late, perhaps a Yehoshua or two can be found who can lead their benighted minions into a promised land of healthy living within the boundaries of Torah. Instead, what we end up with is lesser men who double down on the fanaticism that preceded them, and then proceed to further inflame their followers with newer and more restrictive directives.

Yes, there is a link between the Haftarah of  Shabbat Nahamu and Parshat Vaethanan

While most haftarot are designed to parallel the contents of the weekly parsha (harking back to an era when the Romans prohibited reading from the Torah itself), the haftarah to Vaethanan is not believed to have any parallel in the parsha. Rather, following Tisha B’Av and the destruction of Jerusalem, it is Yeshayahu’s  paean to redemption, offering us comfort as he describes the eventual utopia.

Having said this, I would suggest there is indeed a powerful echo of our parsha in the haftarah.

In the parsha we read:

לֹ֣א תֹסִ֗פוּ עַל־הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָֽנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תִגְרְע֖וּ מִמֶּ֑נּוּ

“Do not add to the thing that I command you, nor shall you diminish from it” ( 4:2).

The conventional interpretation of this verse is that we are enjoined against embellishing a particular mitzvah, e.g. adding a fifth chapter into tefillin, or subtracting from the mitzvah in any way.

However, in the larger context, we can argue that the meta meaning of this verse is that we must not encumber observance needlessly to the point where normal life becomes unsustainable, and indeed, religious life becomes a deterrent to Jewish connectivity. Likewise, we are told not to dilute Torah and mitzvot to the point where Jewish life becomes spiritually empty and ultimately meaningless.

In truth, both these impulses define the times in which we live. Indeed, they feed off one another.

Torah life has become so onerous and encumbered by needless humrot (stringencies) and religious one-upmanship, that being religious becomes a full-time job. Those less inclined to piety increasingly dilute their observance and their connection to Torah to the point of meaninglessness.

The greatest success of each extreme is the growth of the other: the smug, entitled elitism of the haredim on the one hand, and the indifference, illiteracy and hostility of the hilonim on the other.

Now let us look at the haftarah:

כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain  (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 40:4)

How remarkable!

Yeshayahu is describing a perfect time when those who have reached the depths of indifference and depravity shall be elevated to level terrain, and likewise those who are in an unrealistic, even counterproductive, height of extreme observance and encumbrance will be brought down to the |”דרכיה דרכי נועם” the pleasant way of Torah as it is meant to be so that “והיה העקוב למישור” – the crooked shall become straight.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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