As our inaugural blog entry, I'm posting the D'var Torah I gave last night at our first Shabbat service as Rabbi and Cantor of the Aspen Jewish Congregation. Happy 4th of July!
Rabbi David Segal • Aspen Jewish Congregation • Friday, July 2, 2010 • Shabbat Pinchas
After the Revolutionary War, in 1783,
a group of American military officers
founded the Society of the Cincinnati.
Their aim was to preserve the ideals
of the American Revolution
and to hold the government accountable
for the promises it had made
to the officers
and to the people of the colonies.
The society elected,
as their first President General,
someone whose name rings out
this July 4th weekend:
The Society of the Cincinnati took its name
from the Roman hero
Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus.
As the story goes --
part legend, part truth --
during a wartime emergency,
Cincinnatus was called from his farm
by a panicked Senate
to serve as military commander
and dictator of Rome.
Just 16 days later,
after he defeated the invading forces,
Cincinnatus resigned as dictator,
restored power to the Senate,
and returned to his farm
In his own day,
embodied the hero Cincinnatus:
After his victorious leadership
of the Revolutionary War,
he could have leveraged his popularity and power
to become King, as many urged him to do.
Instead, he helped establish
a non-hereditary, term-limited
succession of power.
He insisted on the title “Mr. President,”
rather than the more majestic and monarchic names
suggested at the time.
After a reluctant second term as President,
Washington declined to seek a third term,
setting a precedent for future Presidents
that later became law
as the 22nd Amendment, in 1951.
And like Cincinnatus before him,
he returned to Mt. Vernon,
his home and farm.
The motto of the Society of Cincinnati
captures both men’s stories:
“He gave up everything to serve the republic.
Our Torah Portion this week,
Pinchas, in the Book of Numbers,
confronts us with
a more ancient story
of leadership and succession.
Here we find the Israelites nearing the Jordan River,
and preparations are underway
for crossing into their future homeland.
As we heard chanted so beautifully,
Moses ascends the mountain
at God’s command.
There he enjoys a panoramic vista
of the Promised Land,
only to be told by God,
V’ra’ita otah v’ne’esafta el amecha...
“When you have seen it,
you shall be gathered to your kin” (Num 27:13),
the Torah’s euphemism for death.
If I were Moses,
I might have protested immediately:
After all I’ve done
for Your stubborn people --
when I didn’t even want this job
in the first place! --
THIS is how you repay me?
But Moses being Moses,
that’s not what he said.
His immediate reaction
to this gut-wrenching news
was to think of the Israelites’ wellbeing
rather than his own:
Yifkod Adonai Elohei haruchot l’chol basar ish al ha’eidah
“May Adonai, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a leader over the community.”
I suppose one could interpret Moses’ words
as a passive-aggressive complaint,
as if to say,
If I’m not leading them, you better find someone who can. Good luck.
And Rashi, a medieval commentator,
does just that.
According to Rashi,
of this future leader,
one who will “lead [the people] out and bring them in” (Num 27:17),
is Moses’ way of saying to God,
Don’t do to this new leader
what you are doing to me,
by preventing me from leading the people
into the Promised Land. (Rashi on Num 27:17)
But regardless of Moses’ actual motivation,
it is worth noticing
that Moses does not assume
nor ask for his son to be appointed.
In that posture,
and in God’s response,
there is the faint stirring
of a democratic and republican impulse.
“Take Joshua ben Nun, and lay your hand upon him.
Stand him before Elazar the priest
and before the whole community,
and command him in their sight.
Invest him with some of your authority,
so that the whole community of the Children of Israel
shall hear.” (Num 27:18-20)
Unlike Moses’ appointment,
which happened in a solitary desert,
with a burning bush as the only witness,
this will be a public succession.
The Israelites have begun to reach
political maturity as a people.
Desert revelations and secret prophecies
cannot sustain them
as they cross from slavery into freedom,
and from freedom into responsibility.
Joshua’s succession occurs
lifnei Elazar hakohen, before Elazar the priest,
and lifnei kol ha’eidah, before the entire community.
The verb yishm’u (Num 27:20),
describing what the Israelites will do
in this moment,
is usually translated as obey.
But it is the same root as Sh’ma,
in its most basic meaning, to hear --
in other words, this ceremony of succession
happens in public,
so that the entire community may bear witness.
There is transparency.
And where there is transparency,
there can be accountability.
To be fair,
it would still be thousands of years
before ideas like
and a government
of the people, by the people, and for the people,
would take root and blossom.
But in its day --
an age of kings and empires,
of ruthless and unchecked power,
and pharaohs worshiped like gods --
the Torah’s vision of leadership
As we celebrate our Revolutionary American story
this holiday weekend,
let’s remember and honor
these lessons of leadership:
Freedom and Independence
We can no longer simply rely on God
to send a prophet from the wilderness,
charged with the task of leading us.
Good leadership requires public accountability,
and it is up to each of us,
both as leaders ourselves
and as community members,
to ensure transparency,
to protect democracy,
to participate in public life, at every level.
May this 4th of July be filled
with joy, shared together with friends and family.
May it also lead us
to recommit ourselves
to the values and examples
bringing upon ourselves, our families, and our communities
the blessings of freedom.
Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Independence Day.