D’var Torah: Every generation finds a leader it needs for its time



Parashat Vaylech is the shortest parashah in the corpus of the lectionary, the weekly readings of the Torah as we have them in our shuls. Yet despite its brevity, it possesses several critical teachings intended not only for our ancestors, the Ancient Israelites, but for us, their fortunate descendants and inheritors.

One such lesson is found at the outset of the portion when Moses announces, once again, his intent to take leave of the B’nai Yisrael. Like any good leader, he does not simply abandon the people “like sheep without a shepherd” but rather declares that his protégé, Joshua, will assume the mantel of leadership and guide the people to their destination, the Promised Land.

As I reread the parashah, which is only one chapter in length, Chapter 31 of the Book of Devarim, I noticed something fascinating. As Moses announces his retirement and departure, he seems to be hinting that Joshua’s leadership is going to be different than his own. Whereas Moses is both the religious/spiritual as well as the political/military leader of the people, a leader who goes out before and directs the people, Joshua is relegated to a more circumscribed and limited role. His task is to bring the people into the land and then apportion that territory according to the will of the Divine.

Unlike Moses, who enjoyed a “face to face” relationship with the Almighty and often challenged Divine decrees and decisions, Joshua’s role, though central, was significantly diminished.  After all, there was only one Moses, and it was he alone who merited the opportunity to be God’s Bar Plugta (sacred sparring partner).

This reminded me of a tale that took place when I first arrived in St. Louis and was blessed by the presence of our emeritus rabbi, Bernard Lipnick (Z’L). During our five years of working together, I learned much about St. Louis, our congregation and life from this great rabbinic leader.

One afternoon, he invited me to his office to meet with a disgruntled family. I watched him use his prodigious skills to make the family feel heard and respected; he assuaged their concerns and ultimately refranchised them. As the meeting drew to a close, somewhat surprisingly, Lipnick said: “So, you cannot go, you shall not go, and you will not go.” Sheepishly, the family agreed.

Several year later, after Lipnick’s passing and subsequent shivah, the family made a meeting to advise me that they were now going to leave the Kehillah. I did my best Lipnick imitation and attempted to persuade them to stay. I went to so far as to try the “You cannot go, you shall not go, and you will not go” line, but to no avail. The patriarch of the family turned to me and declared, BeZeh HaLashon (in these very words): “I knew Lipnick, and you, young man, are no Lipnick.”

Clearly, each era is blessed with the leaders it wants and likely needs. Mosaic leadership was needed at one point in Israelite history, and Joshua was the right person in a later time. Lipnick had the right style for his time and, hopefully, Rose has what it takes in the current era. Either way, good leadership is crucial to our survival and flourishing.

A postscript to the above tale: When the patriarch of the aforementioned family was on his death bed, he summoned me to his home. He held my hand and begged me to forgive him for having treated me with such blatant disrespect and disdain. I assured him he had nothing to apologize for and that his focus, in his final days, would be saying goodbye to family and loved ones.

With tears in his eyes, he thanked me and then said words that I will never forget: “I knew Lipnick and you, young man, are no Lipnick; but you do honor to his memory and are a worthy, and most appropriate, successor to a great man.”

We laid him to rest three days later, several yards from where Rabbi Lipnick is buried and a stone’s throw from what will be my final resting place.

Indeed, generations come and generations go. (Ecclesiastes 1:4)

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose, D.Div., is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona. He recently announced he is retiring from his rabbinic position at Congregation B’nai Amoona to become the CEO of the Mandel JCC in Cleveland.