J.J Gross
J.J Gross

Vaethanan: The case against gerontocracy and a Haftarah that seeks a healthy medium

Parshat Vaethanan – vastly more than meets the eye

1. The forced retirement of Moses – the case against gerontocracy

G-d rebuffs and rebukes Moses for his repeated requests to lead the Israelites into the Land of Israel. Yet Moses does not seem to take any responsibility for this seemingly cruel decision, going so far as to blame the Israelites for his misfortune.  “And G-d was angered with me because of your (Israelites) deeds, and swore that I would not cross the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 4:21).

Earlier Moses says; “And G-d was enraged with me because of you, and did not listen to me …” (Deut. 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 – למענכםfor your sake.

In other words Moses 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 Moses 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.

Hence the question is what to do with Moses.  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 the Israelites into a gerontocracy that can result in political, religious, economic and military paralysis.

So what then would the Israelites do with an aged Moses looking over the shoulder of the younger Joshua, second-guessing his every move?  What would Joshua do with his revered, but no longer able, mentor breathing down his neck?  How would the Israelites handle the inevitable conflict of being torn between the desire for progress and the love and adoration for a relic from a different reality?

Thus Moses accepts, albeit reluctantly, the fact that he is being permanently sidelined for the sake of the Israelites, 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, oblivious to what is going on in the street, oftentimes ignorant of the way their names are being 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, these nonagenarian and centenarian rabbis continue to rule in name, while others manipulate them to serve disastrous 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. And then, if it is not too late, perhaps a Joshua or two can be found who can lead their benighted minions into a promised land of healthy living within the boundaries of Torah.

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

While most haftarahs 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, in the wake of Tisha B’Av and the destruction of Jerusalem, it is Isaiah’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: “Do not add to the thing that I command you, nor shall you diminish from it” (Deut. 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 and, indeed, they feed off one another.  As Torah life becomes so onerous and encumbered by needless stringencies and religious one-upmanship that being religious becomes a full-time job, those less inclined to religiosity 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 indifference, illiteracy and hostility of the hilonim on the other.

Now let us look at the haftarah: כל גיא ינשא וכל הר וגבעה ישפלו” – every depression (valley) will be raised, and every  height will be brought down (Isaiah 40:4).

How remarkable!

Isaiah 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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