Dvar Torah Vayeilech

By: Rabbi Bennett F. Miller,
Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple,
New Brunswick, NJ, USA

 Change is Certain; Don’t take surveys; and Don’t be dismayed!

Ah! The parashah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! In the midst of the time of the year when we are considering “who will live and who will die… who will be inscribed in the Book of Life, along comes one of the concluding chapters of the Torah informing us of the transmission of leadership from Moses to Joshua, the death of Moses the longtime leader of the Israelites, and how the Israelites might react to new leadership. It is a passage of Torah from which all of us should learn and from which there is much to learn. I offer the following understanding for this year:

  • Change is certain: No leader lasts forever. It is important for every leader to understand this certainty. Our leadership lasts only during our lifetime. Our legacy is what others do with what we have built and shaped and fashioned. We are living at the end of one of the most exciting and dynamic times in Jewish life. We have been the generation that picked up the ashes of the Shoah and built and rebuilt Jewish communities all of the world; we rescued the remaining remnant of European Jewry; and brought the Jews of the Soviet Union out to freedom. We are the generation that made the dream of Zion restored into a reality that is a beacon of hope and inspiration to the entire world. What our generation has accomplished is nothing short of miraculous.

Yet, change is certain. The entire world is being reshaped and fashioned anew. Communication across the globe can be made in an instant; we can speak with one another face-to-face as never before. Jewish life in Israel, in America, throughout the world is reacting to all of the changes and no one can predict with certainty what Jewish communities will look like in the coming years.

Joshua, the successor of Moses, could have been terrified; he could have decided that he was incapable of leading the people into the future, or that his task was to do all that he could to hold on tightly to everything Moses had done and preserve it as is for all time. But it is Moses who teaches Joshua (and us) that a leader’s job is not to hold tightly to the past and prevent the future from taking shape.

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ אַל־תִּֽירְא֥וּ*  “Be strong and resolute; don’t be afraid.” This is the challenge that Moses puts forth. While he doesn’t say it, he recognizes that change is inevitable. Good leaders, wise leaders, understand this. They understand that the future can only occur if those who lead are willing to take risks to create a future. You and I should understand this as well.

In the coming years, Jewish life will undoubtedly undergo change. The impact of a dynamic Israel upon the rest of Jewry will be significant; it already is. How millennials and the generations to follow will react to what we have bequeathed to them is unknown. But we should “be strong and resolute … and not afraid;” our faith in the coming generations should be one of confidence for Jewish life has responded to so many moments in history and from them renewal and revival have always occurred.

  • Don’t take surveys. I have always taught that leaders lead and everyone else takes surveys. I am not suggesting that all surveys are bad. But I do believe that true leaders are those who see vision not from asking what do people want or need, but in seeing possibilities and direction from the reality before them. Christopher Columbus didn’t take surveys, Isaac Mayer Wise didn’t take surveys, Theodor Herzl didn’t surveys – great leaders don’t rely on surveys to see vision for the future. And neither should we. We should not be building tomorrow based on Pew studies or Gallop polls. We should build a Jewish future based on a desire and commitment to see our people’s journey to far off destinations and then lead our people to those places, building strong and vibrant communities along the way, and shaping an Israel that all of us dream of, an Israel in which democracy and religious freedom reign, an Israel that truly is a model and symbol of the highest in human living for all other nations to see and to which they will equally aspire.
  • Do not be dismayed! In a world in which terror is found in so many quarters, in which demagoguery and fear represent the language of the day, Vayelech reminds us that we should not be dismayed. An epoch in time, the age of Moses is about to end, but the future of the Jewish people, despite the possibilities of despair and dismay, is bright and shining. Such a message should be the take away for all us who read Vayelech; this message of hope in the midst of uncertainty should be the byword of our day. Our children and grandchildren are watching how we respond to the reality of our time. They are looking to see how we transfer the mantle of leadership to the next generation. And, they are looking to us to understand that as they shape a tomorrow different than yesterday and today it will be a tomorrow filled with potential, great potential, one of blessing and of hope.

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*Deuteronomy 31:6

We are sharing the sermon through the courtesy of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We are immensely grateful to the WUPJ.

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