Elliot J. Cosgrove
Elliot J. Cosgrove

What Comes Next?

At the risk of Monday-morning quarterbacking the greatest story ever told, there is one question that should have been asked in the fifteen chapters leading up to the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, but unfortunately never was.

It was not for lack of opportunity.

Moses could have asked the question when he stood with God at the burning bush. As Moses and Aaron prepared to go before Pharaoh to demand their people’s freedom, they could have conferred on the question. When the instructions came as to how each Hebrew household should prepare the Passover ritual, perhaps that was the window for Moses to have paused two beats to address the proverbial elephant in the room. Or maybe, just maybe, as the pressure mounted, as the quantity and potency of the plagues intensified, as the outcome of the story became increasingly inevitable, perhaps our great leader could have taken a second to reflect on three simple words that could have and should have been voiced, but alas were not.

The short question: “What comes next?”

“What comes next?” Nobody asked – not God, not Aaron, not Moses – no one! They had enough time to bake the matzah; they had enough time to think about what they would say to future generations about their liberation. Moses even had enough time to locate the ancient remains of Joseph so they could be re-interred in the Promised Land. But at no time did they stop to think about the day after liberation.

What would their lives be like as free men and women? As slaves, the Israelites lived under the yoke of Egyptian rule. As the plagues fell and the sea split, God’s will and outstretched arm determined Israel’s fate. But what about after that? When the will of the people, not Pharaoh or God, would determine the outcome, how would the people respond? After Moses led the insurgency, what would his new leadership role be? How would he lead the people and provide for their needs? As goes the lyric in Broadway’s Hamilton: “What comes next? You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead? You’re on your own, (Awesome, Wow) Do you have a clue what happens now?” At no point in the race to freedom did Moses stop to anticipate and adapt to the “new normal” that was awaiting him and his people.

If the chapters following the Song at the Sea prove anything, it is that it would have been really, really helpful to consider the question of “what comes next” before the Children of Israel arrived at the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Not one – not even one – verse passes before the shouts of joy and freedom turn to kvetching as the Israelites discover that they have no water. “What shall we drink?” the people cry out to Moses, who in turn calls out to God for help. The people’s thirst shifts to hunger and their grumblings grow more strident. “If only we had died in Egypt . . .” the people proclaim, their recollections of bitter bondage transformed into sweet nostalgia. “There we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! You [Moses] have brought us into the wilderness to starve to death.”

The crisis is averted with the arrival of manna. It comes with a single caveat – a prohibition against collecting it on the Sabbath – a law that is immediately broken, provoking Moses’s wrath yet again.

A second water crisis emerges, and Moses strikes the rock to produce water. The pressure mounts from the outside as the Israelites are attacked by Amalek. The newly liberated slaves are thrust into their first military skirmish, with Moses’s arms growing weary as Joshua and the people fight until the setting of the sun. It is an altogether sobering few chapters of biblical narrative. Scarcely had Pharaoh and his chariots plunged into the sea, than the circumstances of the Israelites plummeted far lower than anyone imagined possible. Considering that the Israelites liberation was hundreds of years in the making, it is nothing short of jarring to consider just how ill-informed and ill-prepared, how flatfooted Moses and the Israelites were for what they should expect the day after their freedom. So much heartache and pain could have been avoided had Israel considered and prepared for what awaited them.

The late Governor Mario Cuomo once wrote that you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. What he meant, I think, is that the attributes necessary to be elected, or lead a revolution, do not lend themselves well to daily demands of governance. Important as vision may be, it is the ability to implement the vision that is the difference between failure and success. Only very rarely does history provide a Washington, Ben Gurion or Mandela – a leader capable of flexing multiple muscle groups as liberator, founding father, and gracious steward to a new generation of leadership. Moses was the liberator of our people, a teacher of Torah par excellence, a man who shared an intimacy with God second to none, but even he had his limitations. Yes, he felt the pain of the Israelites. Yes, he translated that empathy into action, striking down the Egyptian and standing up to Pharaoh. But what Moses could not and did not do was to prepare himself and the Israelites for the day after: To instill in them self sufficiency, to teach them resilience, to model for them compromise and conflict resolution.

In the chapters to come, Moses will be forced to delegate and to create a flatter organizational structure, but old habits die hard. The irony is that Moses’s early success was driven by precisely the same qualities that would prove to be his undoing in the years to come. As the needs of the people changed, Moses showed himself unable to alter his leadership style. Ultimately, we know, it will be for this reason that neither he, nor any of the liberated Israelites, would be permitted to enter the Promised Land.

What is true for Moses and leadership applies all the more in our own lives. If one believes, as I do, that life is a play in multiple acts, that as Heraclitus wrote, “the only thing that is constant . . . is change,” then each and every one of us must constantly anticipate and adapt, considering “What’s next?”

None of us should willfully allow ourselves to be caught flatfooted. We must all be willing to turn and face the strange: face it, anticipate it, and adapt to it as it unfolds before us. Not only must we seek to understand the changing ecosystems in which we function, but we must demonstrate the self-awareness and suppleness of spirit to transform our own roles.

It is not a task limited to revolutionaries and statesmen; it is a question for all of us, no matter what institutions we serve and in which capacities we do so. If, after all, we would ask others to extend us the right to pivot and change course should the need arise, then it follows that we must be prepared to grant that same courtesy to others.

Leadership, if nothing else, is the ability to inspire another person to believe that tomorrow holds the potential to be different from today, and that it is only by way of that person’s unique contributions that a potential future can be actualized. Be it in a corporate office, a synagogue or any other setting, it is an organization’s ability to enthusiastically ask and embrace “What’s next?” that signals its readiness to adapt to new and uncharted terrain.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is in the most quiet and sacred relationships of our lives that we must be willing to embrace the question of “What’s next?” Are we willing to grant that the needs of those we love most may be different tomorrow than they were yesterday? Than they are today? As we identify our loved ones’ changing hopes and articulate our own, we must be prepared to realign, redefine, and adapt to their evolving selves and to our own. As our children grow and change before our very eyes, we must allow that the continued vitality of our relationship with them depends on our ability to recalibrate the style and substance of our communications and expectations. Be it parent and child, or any two people, a static relationship bears no potential for growth. We must always be willing to turn over the topsoil of our own identities, knowing that only by doing so will we be able to plant fruit-bearing seeds for the future. For anyone interested in sustaining relationships through the inevitable passages of our lives, the question “What comes next?” is one we must always have on our lips and always be open to hearing.

Rabbi Yaakov taught in Pirkei Avot that this world is a vestibule for the world to come and that we must prepare ourselves in this vestibule should we wish to enter the banquet hall that awaits us (4:21). I would amend his statement to say that this moment – every moment – is a vestibule for the moment to come, and should we wish to enter the world that awaits us, we must constantly prepare ourselves. Moses, the liberator of our people, the teacher of Israel par excellence, the man who shared a unique intimacy with God, nonetheless had his limitations. It wasn’t easy for him, much less for us, to think that tomorrow may make demands on us that are beyond the scope of our present. It wasn’t easy for Moses to reinvent himself midstride, to imagine that future successes would call on him to discard an old playbook and write a new one. So too in all of our lives there are unknown destinations ahead, promised lands that exist beyond the scope of our present vision. Should we wish to arrive intact, we must be prepared for it all, nimble and ever ready to embrace what awaits us in the days to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, PhD is Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, is an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of seven volumes of sermons and the editor of Jewish Theology in Our Time.
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