Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

When Aging Leaders Should Go: Teachings from Torah

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The concluding chapters of the Torah, culminating in Vzot HaBracha, have timely messages relevant to our political scene:

In the movie Logan’s Run, life was great; opportunity was rife, and resources were abundant. Everyone thrived. That is until you reached the age limit for existence when your life was terminated – as pleasantly as possible, of course, but terminated just the same.  The movie was ridiculous because the termination age was 30 – but does it really matter what the age is? Is some arbitrary chronological cut-off the fairest way to assure opportunity for the young and non-discrimination at the end of life? And when that time comes, what can we do – or say- to ease that leader’s transition to retirement?

On the current political radar, we are questioning the aged-ness of Biden and Trump as a bar for serving as the American Leader-in-Chief.  And while Bibi’s “only” 73, he’s no spring chicken either. In a country where the mandatory retirement age for Knesset (and other) workers is 67, age-wise, Bibi is five years past his “sell-by” date.

Age discrimination is prohibited in America. Nevertheless, ageist jabs are now lodged against Senators Dianne Feinstein and Mitch McConnell. To be sure, both have demonstrated behaviors signaling the ravages of time. And then there is the pending matter of Judge Pauline Newman, an esteemed 96-year-old jurist sitting on the Patent Court of Appeals. Her detractors also claim she’s too old to serve.

The “great” are as vulnerable as the non-great to failing to timely exit: to wit, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Some argue that aging leaders should pass some medical clearance to continue working. Others assert that some arbitrary cut-off age should curtail professional life to avoid such debacles.

So when, exactly, is a leader too old to serve? Must he or she actually demonstrate aged behavior, feeble-mindedness, judgmental lapses, tongue-tiedness, to be removed from office? Is there some other rubric that should measure competency? If so, what?

The concluding three chapters of Deuteronomy offer some insights and some questions.  I suggest that within the questions are the answers to the aging leader conundrum:

  1. Wasn’t Moses’ punishment for hitting the rock to bring forth water, instead of speaking to it as he was commanded – denial of entry to the Promised Land- – a bit draconian?
  2. Why does God burden Moses with the knowledge that after he passes, his people will deviate from God’s ways? Couldn’t Moses have been spared this painful information?

The concluding chapters of D’varim describe Moses’s retirement from active duty,  presenting deep messages that reverberate today. But seeing them requires flipping the narrative on its face.  Moses certainly wasn’t being recalled for any obvious or physical age-related infirmity. As it says in Chapter 34 of Devarim, v. 7:

 And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.

So, why did Moses have to go? And why is he told of the future infamy of the people he so diligently led right before his recall?

One day years ago, my friend Lynn asked me what greeting I wanted to hear upon my ascension to the pearly gates.

“Ya did a great job, Barbara!” was my immediate reply.

At the time, I had no idea what my job was (I still don’t), but being told by my Creator that I excelled at my mission — whatever it was to be — was my goal. I’m sure many would agree.

With that longing in mind, let’s look at G-d’s final charges to Moses.

We start at chapter 31 of Deuteronomy with Moses’ own admission that he’s getting on in years. As we later learn in chapter 34, this was a subjective assessment, rather than a function of any age-related issues. No macular degeneration, no glaucoma, no corneal issues, no loss of motivation plagued the great leader. Just, it seems, getting around was getting harder, or he felt that he was losing his “touch”. At least that’s the literal meaning of the text in Chapter 31 of D’varim:

א  וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל. 1 And Moses went and spoke these words unto all Israel.
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם–לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא 2 And he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in; …


So, what made him feel this way?

Indeed, it does seem that he has “failed” – “trespassed” is the typical translation – in at least one assignment: He struck the rock in the wilderness of Zin, rather than speaking to it as instructed.  Hence, we assume he was being “punished” by being denied entry to the “Promised Land”.

Interestingly, the word “punished” does not appear in the text – although from our perspective we construe the denial of entry as a punishment. As we will see in Devarim Chapter 32, this may not necessarily be the case.

The text tells us Moses is denied entry:

51 Because ye trespassed against Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified Me not in the midst of the children of Israel.

So, if Moses wasn’t being “punished’ for his“disobedience”, what was his great failing?

In verse 51, the text uses the words “mi’altem bi”, which is also translatable as acting unfaithfully, not to G-d, but in Him (Bi, not Li or Aylie)

נא  עַל אֲשֶׁר מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי = Acted unfaithfully

Some commentators note that this second generation of the Exodus did not require a showing of G-d’s force, hitting the rock, as Moses was instructed earlier when the first generation complained about lack of water. This generation needed to see the power of speech, the force of the “word.” Moses’ behavior was an act of disloyalty – unfaithfulness – to the mission – his joint mission with G-d. By this time, the mission: presenting G-d’s greatness before the people,  should have been internalized “within” Moses as “within” G-d.

On one level, then, the needs of the people had changed- and Moses did not change with them.

On another level, Moses acted pursuant to his own natal character- acting out his anger (the trademark of the tribe of Levi), which until now he had ruthlessly controlled or channeled into righteous indignation rather than personal frustration.   Now, he couldn’t control himself anymore. As he says in ch. 31, the literal translation being

, אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם–לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד “today, I can’t do it anymore….”

On another level, his behavior reflected his old habits, not showing the resiliency of character characteristic of youth.

In other words, Moses was getting “old.” (Loss of resiliency is a medically recognized trademark of the aging person).

In other words, Moses was out of touch with the times.

In other words, Moses was not the leader best suited for this generation.

Numbers chapter 20, v. 12, tells us Moses was prevented from leading the people to the Promised Land- not because he hit the rock, but because he had lost his ability to convey G-d’s powers in a manner best suited to this generation, i.e, he had lost his trust in G-d.

“Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites  therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”

His recall, then, was not a punishment, but a manifestation of G-d’s primary focus on the needs of the Jewish people, not the desires of Moshe.

It was for this reason, I suggest, that he needed to be recalled, so someone younger and more in touch and in tune could lead. His denial of entry was not a punishment, but a retirement, involuntary perhaps, but necessary to address the current needs of the people.

Nevertheless, before he is retired, God tells Moses in Chapter 31:

16 : ‘Behold, thou art about to sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the foreign gods of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them.

טז  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הִנְּךָ שֹׁכֵב עִם-אֲבֹתֶיךָ; וְקָם הָעָם הַזֶּה וְזָנָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵי נֵכַר-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר הוּא בָא-שָׁמָּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ, וַעֲזָבַנִי, וְהֵפֵר אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אִתּוֹ.

We read this as Moses being forewarned the people will go astray. We think maybe G-d was “unfeeling” in sharing this information.

But perhaps this isn’t the case. If not, what exactly is God saying v. 16?

He is telling Moses “ya did a great job, Moses!”

He is saying that after Moses “goes to sleep with his fathers”, after Moses dies, the people will forsake G-d.  He is reminding Moses that while he was alive, the people had their tantrums and juvenile rebellions, but Moses kept them in line. It wasn’t the plagues, or the cloud of the Divine by day, and the fire of Glory at night, or the parting of the sea that impressed and corralled the people – it was the presence of Moses.

Recall that merely weeks after the plagues and the drowning of the Egyptians after the sea parted. Moses departs for six weeks- and boom – the people forsake G-d. Even Aaron couldn’t keep them in line.  But, before he is recalled, G-d tells him:

“Ya did a great job, Moses.” Without you, the people will (and did) forsake me.

Maybe that’s what we all need to hear before we go. “Ya did a great job!”

About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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