|One future, three transitions|
|Annual Reading Cycle|
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Parashat Hukkat, Numbers 20
This drash first appeared last year, but it seems appropriate to post it again, as we are dedicating our recent Shavuot offering to the Kehilah 2020 initiative, "Focusing on Future Leadership."
Who will be the leaders of the Messianic Jewish future—not just the professional leaders and rabbis, but also the member-leaders within every congregation, who are equally essential to the vision of a Jewish people movement for Yeshua?
In the UMJC we’re seeking to answer this question through our Kehilah 2020 initiative, or K20. K20’s tagline is “Focusing on future leadership,” which we do by identifying, encouraging, and helping equip potential leaders, and matching them with congregations that are ready for their service. K20 is raising money for internships, scholarships, and special events, which will help attract younger people and empower them to serve the Messianic Jewish community as it moves ahead.
We’ve been thinking about this generational transition for several years in the UMJC and throughout the Messianic Jewish community, and it keeps rising higher on the priority list. You can see the same priority in the big narratives of Scripture. Our biblical forebears are constantly thinking about passing on their legacy and the responsibilities and blessings that go with it. They’re all concerned with the transition to future leadership.
Parashat Hukkat portrays three such transitions that shed light on the road ahead of us.
The Israelites come into the wilderness of Zin, discover that there is no water, and start complaining. The Lord is compassionate towards them, and tells Moses, “Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water” (Num. 20:8). But Moses is understandably upset after 40 years of Israelite kvetching, and takes the opportunity to denounce the people as rebels. He scolds them—“Must we bring water for you out of this rock?”—and strikes the rock, instead of just speaking to it (Num. 20:10-11). In his anger, Moses ends up misrepresenting God, who is ready to show mercy to Israel. For this sin, Moses will not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. Not long afterwards, he begins the transition to Joshua, the next-generation leader (Num. 27:15-23).
Joshua is an iconic figure in leadership transition, but before he receives smicha (ordination) from Moses, another next-generation leader will emerge. Right after the incident at the rock, the Lord tells Moses, “Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son; for Aaron shall be gathered to his people and die there” (Num. 20:25-26). Joshua will receive much from Moses, but Eleazar receives the very garments that Aaron had worn. Joshua’s authority will be on hold until Moses dies and the Israelites are ready to enter the Promised Land; Eleazar assumes his full authority in the wilderness and carries it into the Land. Eleazar receives his position by inheritance and assumes the very same role as his father. Joshua isn’t even related to Moses and has a different sort of role, so that right after he takes over, the Torah notes that no prophet like Moses has arisen in Israel (Deut 34:10).
Eleazar represents continuity, bearing the riches of our heritage into a new generation; Joshua represents completion, a dramatic step forward to fulfill what the old generation began.
We talk a lot about Joshua, but our community needs Eleazar as well. We need both the up-front, charismatic leader who can mobilize us to fulfill the vision; and the lower-profile leader who ensures that the supply lines are in place to make the mobilization successful. We need Joshua’s work in the power of the ruach, and we need Eleazar’s priestly connection to the riches of Jewish heritage. Indeed, the Messianic Jewish community has the prophetic task of healing the rift between Joshua and Eleazar, between ruach and our Jewish heritage.
So the community needs both Eleazar and Joshua, and they both need the community.
The whole community sees Moses ascend Mount Hor with Aaron and Eleazar and come down with Eleazar alone (Num. 20:27). They mourn Aaron for thirty days, but they’re ready to accept Eleazar when he stands next to Moses and begins to issue commands just as his father had done (Num. 26:1-3). Likewise, when Joshua’s time comes, the people tell him they’ll follow him just as they followed Moses (although we might hope they do a little better!), and then add the words rakhazak v’amatz, “Only be strong and brave!” (Joshua 1:16-18). Eleazar and Joshua are God-equipped leaders, but they can’t lead apart from the embrace and empowerment of the community. If we want great leaders, we need to be a great community, a community that stands behind and encourages its leaders—especially younger leaders as they emerge. The K20 initiative is poised to do just that.
I hesitate to use these examples, though, because on one level they don’t apply to us. Unlike Moses and Aaron, the current parental generation in our community isn’t quite ready to be gathered to our people. Some of us might be eligible for a senior discount when we go to see TheAvengers, but we’ve got years of service ahead of us. The transition process, however, starts long before we reach the end of the line. And it applies not just to leaders, but to the whole community; not just to the K20 team, but to all of us. One sign of healthy congregational life is that everyone is involved in the process, whether you’re 18 or 81 or somewhere in between.
Mentoring a Joshua-type leader includes helping him or her respect the role of the Eleazar-type of leader, learning to be a team player who doesn’t get wrapped up in his own charisma but realizes how dependent he and the whole enterprise is on other types of leaders. Joshua must learn to complete the vision in continuity with the efforts of the previous generation. Eleazar types, on the other hand, might not be as easy to recognize as Joshua, and might need more encouragement to step into their role. Like Joshua they need training, but they also need to see their role as essential, to see that continuity isn’t a matter of just maintaining the status quo, but of bearing the riches of our heritage into a new generation, so that it can complete the vision.
And there’s a third figure in this story, Miriam. Midrash, or ancient Jewish commentary, links the water crisis in Numbers 20 to her death at the beginning of the chapter. Miriam, despite her sin against Moses (Num. 12), was a true leader within Israel, who had rescued Moses as a baby (Ex. 2:4-10) and led the victory song at the sea.
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)
Soon afterwards, the people came to the place called Massah and Meribah (Ex. 17:7), where they received a miraculous supply of water (after some of their famous kvetching, of course), which was provided, according to the Midrash, because of the merit of Miriam. A full generation later the people arrive at the same spot, “the waters of Meribah,” where the waters fail upon the death of Miriam. The text speaks of the rock five times in Numbers 20:8-10, suggesting that it’s the same rock that Moses had struck, back in Exodus 17. In the Midrash this rock becomes a well that follows the Israelites throughout their wanderings to supply them with water.
Paul seems to have this same rock in mind when he tells the Corinthians,
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were immersed into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Messiah. 1 Cor. 10:1-4
If Eleazar stands for continuity and Joshua for completion, Miriam represents connection. She sees and declares the victory of God, and so becomes the link between the people and the waters of the ruach that ultimately flow from Messiah himself. Just as the survival of the Israelites depended on water, so the survival of our community depends on connection with the steady supply of ruach, the wellspring of God’s spirit flowing among us.
What does Miriam look like? How can we spot her or him in our congregations? Miriam types might have a tambourine and be worship leaders, the kind that don’t draw attention to themselves, but lead others into worship. Or they might be quiet members who pray a lot and remember the essentials of trusting God and his word, who see and declare the victory of Messiah when more visible leaders are distracted by all the demands upon them. Miriam bears a sense of connection to God whether she’s close to the control panel or not. Leaders, both Joshua and Eleazar, need to recognize and honor such pray-ers and spirit-connectors in our midst.
As the K20 initiative moves forward, we know that we’ll need different types of leaders; Joshua, Eleazar, and Miriam. And these leaders need each other—and the whole community, every one of us, as well. When Miriam led the victory song at the sea, Torah says, “all the women went out after her.” The community itself is the key to moving forward; embracing and empowering both Joshua and Eleazar, and supplying many who will join Miriam to see and declare the Lord’s glorious triumph and remain connected to its source.