This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/27/19 –
On three separate occasions I have been involved with the rabbinic ordination ceremonies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Once was my own ordination, the very moment I became a rabbi in my own eyes. The other two times I was asked to participate in the ceremony by ordaining rabbinical students. The ritual is simple but powerful. The person being ordained is called forward, and words of blessing are spoken. Then a tallit is taken and placed upon the student’s shoulders, and as the hands of the ordaining rabbi rest on the student’s shoulders, the student is for the very first time publicly called ‘Harav’ – rabbi.
That ordination ritual comes in part from a scene in this morning’s Torah portion, one of the most poignant moments in the entire Bible. God tells Moses that his time is almost up, that he is about to die. God takes Moses to the top of a mountain outside the land, and shows him the place where the Israelites will make their home. That in and of itself is painful – Moses, who has given everything to God and to the people will never see the fruits of his own labors. But it is the simple exchange between Moses and God that follows that I find so striking.
Moses says to God ‘OK, God, if I am not going to be the leader, then go ahead and appoint someone else to lead this people.’ And I’ve always felt this is Moses’ way of saying ‘God, no one else can do what I do! If you think you can find another person to fill my shoes, go ahead, good luck!’ I’ve always read Moses’ response as a way of indicating to God that he is indispensable, of trying to remind God that God needs Moses, otherwise the whole project will fall apart.
But God’s response is devastating, at least that is the way it has always seemed to me. Immediately, God responds to Moses: קח לך את יהושע בן נון – just take Joshua! אשר רוח בו – he also has the spirit of God – וסמכת את ידך עליו – and lay your hands upon him. In other words, God is saying, don’t worry Moses. It won’t be hard to find someone to fill your shoes! In fact, Joshua is right here. So if you don’t mind, ordain him in front of the people, and he’ll be the leader from this point forward. And that moment of ordination, that transfer of power, is marked in the Torah by Moses laying his hands upon Joshua’s shoulders. At that very instant the people know that Moses is out, and Joshua is in. And it is that laying of hands that became the symbol in Judaism of the transfer of authority, from one generation to the next, which is why it is used during rabbinic ordination ceremonies down to this very day.
I’ve always wondered how Moses felt at that moment. Wasn’t he crushed by God’s response? Wouldn’t it have been nice if God had paused, at least for a minute or two, and said ‘You know you are right Moses, it won’t be easy to find someone to replace you!’ Bit it is like Joshua is right on the tip of God’s tongue! God doesn’t even say ‘nice job Moses, here is a gold watch, I’ll set you up in a nice condo in Boca.’ No words of praise, no words of thank. It is all matter of fact. It is done in a second, almost before you even know what happened. It isn’t hard to imagine Moses standing off to the side, while Joshua, now suddenly the center of attention, is surrounded by the people.
The passage has reminded me, as I encounter it year in and year out, of the all too common indignities of aging that confront us as the years go by. One of the most difficult challenges that families face is the take the keys away moment. I suspect you know what I’m talking about. The family feels a person’s driving is no longer safe. They fret and worry that the person might hurt him or herself, or someone else in an accident. But they also know that driving is a major measure of independence, and that to take that away from their loved one will cause hurt and pain, embarrassment, and even anger. But eventually, whether by hook or by crook, whether by force or subterfuge, those keys are taken.
This scene plays out in our lives over and over again, in ways large and small. It might be the moment you switch from a weekly singles game in tennis to a doubles game. Or maybe it is the first year that the seder no longer takes place at your home, but moves to the home of a child or grandchild. Some people retire from work willingly, eager to let go and enter a less stressful and demanding time of their lives. But others have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, and they want to stay in the game for as long as they possibly can. What was it that Bette Davis said? Getting old ain’t for sissies. And I’ve always understood the encounter between God and Moses in this morning’s Torah portion as that kind of moment, a moment where something is taken away from Moses, where his independence is lost, and his self worth is diminished.
But I also wonder if Moses found some comfort in that moment that he laid his hands upon Joshua. Because in a sense that means he had done his work well. That because of his teaching, because of the way he had mentored Joshua, a new leader was ready when the time came. Moses knew Joshua well, they had worked together, he must have been proud of him, he must have known that Joshua was qualified for the job, and that if anyone would be able to do it, he would be the one.
This is not to say that the moment wasn’t hard for Moses. I am sure it was. But maybe it wasn’t all bad. Maybe balancing the sense of loss he felt was a sense of accomplishment. That moment of semicha – of laying on the hands – is a moment of continuity, of acknowledging that we are part of a stream of tradition, that moves from one generation to the next. And if we play our part well, then we will know that our values and the traditions that mean so much to us will be carried forward by the next generation, and the one after that.
So let us play our part. To the best of our ability, with whatever strength God grants to us. Knowing that no person is indispensable – not even a Moses. But knowing also that if we are blessed in the course of our lives what we create can truly change the world for the better. Consider these verses that conclude the 90th Psalm – ויהי נועם ה׳ אלוקינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו, ומעשה ידינו כונניהו – The favor of the Lord our God be upon us. God will establish the work of our hands. The work of our hands God will surely establish.