J.J Gross
J.J Gross

Vezot HaBerakha: The Case Against Gerontocracy

וּמֹשֶׁה, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה–בְּמֹתוֹ; לֹא-כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ, וְלֹא-נָס לֵחֹה

And Moses was 120 years old when he died: his eyes were not dim, nor his natural forces abated.

  דברים לד:ז   Deuteronomy 3

In the Torah’s final parsha we learn of Moses’ death. It was death by invitation. G-d has the leader of the Children of Israel ascend Mount Nevo alone. There  he would conclude his earthly mission, buried by the Almighty in a grave known to no one but Himself.

 וַיִּקְבֹּר אֹתוֹ בַגַּי בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב, מוּל בֵּית פְּעוֹר; וְלֹא-יָדַע אִישׁ אֶת-קְבֻרָתוֹ, עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה

And He buried him  in the valley in the land of Mo’av over and against
Bet-Pe’or;but no man knows his grave to this day (34:6)

 וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים

Since then there arose no prophet in Israel like Moses … (34:10)

What is the Torah telling us here? Why is it necessary to inform us of Moses’ undiminished vitality at the time of his removal from the scene? And if his faculties remained undiminished why was he eliminated altogether?  And if he was taken away, why is his grave unmarked and unknown in perpetuity?

One thing seems rather obvious. The Torah is taking a position against gerontocracy. Yes, even when a leader’s faculties remain intact, even when his vision is still 20/20, even when he still speaks coherently, there comes a time when he must step off the stage and pass the reigns on to a younger generation of leaders even if it is a given that they are men of lesser stature.  What’s more, we must then follow the new generation of leaders and not be paralyzed into seeking answers at a dead leader’s grave.

This lesson has never been more important than in our time when leadership in the so-called Torah world is a mantle passed on posthumously by the most ancient sage to the next most ancient sage.

Nearly every day we see the broadcast of heartbreaking scenes in which an ancient and venerated rabbi is made a fool of. His grandson  shouts into his ear and feeds words into his mouth in order to prompt an incoherent grunt. This is then interpreted as assent or dissent to a self-serving agenda by special interest groups within the haredi community.

Nearly every day – especially at this time of the year – many of us receive fund-raising appeals from unknown organizations that claim to represent a street or two in haredi Jerusalem or Ramat Beit Shemesh. These appeals promise us that this ancient sage will pray during Havdalah, or before Kol Nidre, or while reciting Psalms during the twilights of a festival for those who remit a particular sum (upwards of $200) to help pay for large families headed by wilfully unlettered and unemployed fathers. And they make it very clear that the specific sum was designated by the sage himself, and that he would personally pray over our names IF we fork over the money

How dare they exploit a feeble old man in this manner? How dare they allow video cameras to capture images of this grotesque manipulation? How dare they impose their own agendas and dupe masses of gullible people by ventriloquizing a man long past his dotage?

And more importantly, how dare they prevent their communities from being led and managed by a younger generation of vigorous, capable, more practical men? Because what this community DESPERATELY needs is leaders who have the energy, courage and vision to re-direct their communities away from grinding poverty, bottomless ignorance,  and endless dependence on schnorring as a way of life.

The truth is that the haredi world is being steered by cadres of ‘askanim’, self-selected busybodies who manipulate the words of their sage-du-jour in order to solidify their own power  and cement their control. And we all pay the price.

Haredim pay the ultimate price as many, if not most, lead shiftless, unfulfilling materially deprived lives of blinkered ignorance – never being allowed to discover where their true talents and abilities lie.

The rest of us pay the price by having to grit our teeth as we pay all the taxes , bear all the burdens of defense, provide all the doctors and nurses, engineers and scientists, builders and farmers who make life sustainable for an exponentially growing community of people who – through no fault of their own – lead lives that are in outright defiance of the Torah’s command to labor six days.

Certainly there is a handful of genius minds who deserve to spend their lives engaged in Torah scholarship. Just as there are a handful of genius musicians, scientists and artists who deserve to be exempted from the daily grind because they have a unique gift from which we all benefit.  But to declare every male child born under the shadow of a black hat suitable for a lifetime of rigorous Torah scholarship is outright theft – it is stealing the young man’s life. It is stealing from the taxpaying, army-serving public. It is generating misery and depression. And it is polarizing our society.

And it all begins by ignoring the lesson of Moses’s departure. Gerontocracy serves no one’s interests except that of special interests. And the evidence is all around us.

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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