July 21, 2023 / 3 Av 5783

This week we begin reading the namesake parshah of the fifth book of the Torah, the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). This final book will take us through to the fall high holy days when we will conclude the entire Torah and once again scroll back to the beginning to start afresh.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explained, “If someone who knew nothing about Judaism and the Jewish people were to ask you for a single book that would explain both who Jews are and why they do what they do, the best answer would be Devarim. No other book so encapsulates and dramatizes all the key elements of Judaism as a faith and way of life.”

What Rabbi Sacks also acknowledged about this unique book is that with many of the stories and laws being reiterated for a second time (hence the name “Deuteronomy,” which means “second telling”), this book could have been all about the person retelling the stories, Moses. But no, Moses shines in this book and provides a window into his true and humble leadership by reminding us that the people are the central characters of the Torah and that we and all the future generations are the ones who will be responsible for continuing the lessons learned within this honored legacy.

Much has been written about leadership, leadership styles, techniques, philosophies, and individuals. Large sections of bookstores and libraries contain thousands of books, both old and new, on this sacred subject. But, if we were to condense the realm of leadership into one foundational principle, the cherished concept of selflessness would shine forth like a divine beacon.

Guided by wisdom and judgment, it is the hallowed process of identifying and preparing worthy heirs, virtuous and capable, to carry the mantle of leadership in the future. Just as prophets pass on their sacred knowledge to chosen disciples, so too do visionary leaders plant the seeds of greatness in their successors. Embracing this ancient, proud, and proven process ensures the preservation of a righteous legacy, safeguarding the mission and values of the organization for generations to come. As one chapter concludes, another begins, and the divine hand of succession orchestrates a seamless transfer of leadership, enveloped in the grace of destiny.

Today, there are leaders who have blurred the lines between themselves and the institution, country, and ideology they lead. These so-called “leaders” present themselves as bigger than the cause and have unfortunately lost their way along their own personal and professional journeys. These leaders, who were once emulated, adored, and well-respected, have put their legacy on the line with no thought into their final chapter as leaders, which encompasses the responsibility to prepare those who will follow to be ready to lead in their absence.

By the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses knew his time and role as a leader was nearing its end. Joshua had been anointed Moses’ successor, and he, not Moses, would lead the Children of Israel into their Promised Land. But Moses did not stop once his heir had been selected. Moses now focused on the people and their collective mission and vision. It was up to Moses to demonstrate his confidence in both Joshua and the people’s ability to live up to their new expectations.

Being a leader is not easy. It is a position where the people sit in perpetual judgment. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses shows his unique understanding of the people’s expectations of him to be without fault, weakness, or error, and where he nonetheless selflessly prepares Joshua for success in his next chapter leading the people, as well as preparing the people to understand their role in being led.

Where do we fall in our ability to be led by our leaders?  But if our leaders are failing us, what is our responsibility? There is a well-known quote by the great and wise sage Rabbi Hillel,

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that if we take action because we believe it is the right action for humanity, for our community, and for our family, and not because any particular outcome will benefit us personally, then this is the action to follow. Selfishness is not bad and has a time in everyone’s life. But selflessness is how we move our society forward. Because we are…


Shabbat Shalom,