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Successful Succession

06/17/2021 04:44:28 PM


Transitions in life, and transitions in leadership can be challenges or blessings, depending on how we prepare. Do we leave clear instructions, designate successors and ensure a legacy.  Our Torah portion describes two losses suffered by the Israelites in the desert, one of which leads to appropriate grief, followed by healing and continuity, the other to disaster.  As I prepare for a (temporary) transition in congregational leadership, I am trying to take the lessons of this week’s Torah portion to heart.

In Hukkat, we read of the passing of Miriam. The Torah offers scant description of her function in the community.  She led the Israelites in song at the sea, and complained about Moses.  However the next thing that we read after her passing is that the Israelites are without water, and a rebellious conflict ensues which results in Moses hitting the rock and being denied entry into the Holy Land.  Our sages note that in fact, it was Miriam’s merit that brought water to the Israelites, a miraculous well that followed them on their journeys, which is hinted at later in the portion.  However, no-one realized that she was the source of their water and blessing until she was gone, and she left no clear instructions for how to continue.

In contrast, Aaron’s death was well prepared for. At the very beginning of the portion, before the loss is even anticipated, God transmits the instructions for cleansing from ritual impurity, and instructs Elazar that he will have the key role in this ritual.  When the time comes,  Moses goes up to a mountaintop with Aaron and his son, and there is a transfer of the priestly garments before Aaron’s death. The Israelites miss Aaron, who was the key functionary of their ritual life, but their spiritual life continues without disruption. 

     All of us know that our roles on this earth are only temporary, and we are wise to think about our legacies, and how we prepare those whom we care about to carry on in our absence.  However, the same is true even for temporary departures.  39 years before our portion, Moses went up the mountain for just 40 days, and found himself confronted with the Golden Calf upon his return.

    I am preparing for a temporary transition as I undertake a mini-sabbatical starting June 27th.   This is an example of a time of transition that is necessary and positive.  One explanation for Moses’ misstep hitting the rock is that he had been hitting the same rock for 39 years, and was unable to have the patience and perspective needed to adapt to God’s new instruction. Religious leadership can be an all-consuming lifestyle, and taking opportunities to refresh is critical to the success of any clergy person.  Moses had gone up the mountain for 40 days, but even the inspiration of being with God on the mountaintop only lasts for so long.

 During my sabbatical, I will be away from synagogue email and phone, spending quality time with family, traveling, and tackling some personal projects, including the completion of some timely scholarly work related to emergence from the pandemic.  For much of the time I plan to be out of Atlanta.

    In the meanwhile, having learned the lesson of Hukkat and Exodus, I am spending much of the next week making sure that staff and lay leaders have the information they need to ensure that the life of the synagogue continues undisrupted in my absence.  Rabbi Konigsburg, who is completing his fifth year with our congregation, is well-suited to serve our congregation’s diverse rabbinic needs.  During my time away, he will have increased opportunities to share his passion, compassion, wisdom and creativity.    I know that he will benefit from the remarkable support that we have of staff, lay leadership and the congregation as a whole.  

We face many exciting challenges as a community.  We continue our transition to in-person activities while seeking to maintain the best of what we have learned about virtual opportunities.  As we prepare to celebrate a 40th anniversary of our congregation, we are adding a third generation of even younger members.  However, their needs may be different from those of my generation and our founders, (whose needs are also changing).  I look forward to returning refreshed on August 3rd to take on these challenges and launch an inspiring High Holidays in early September.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784