Letting Go and Taking Hold

By Rabbi Ezra D. Weinberg | Issue Date: October 2009

Ezra WeinbergA rabbi named Shawn Zevit once asked me, “Do you want to be a leader who is remembered for how many followers you had, or for how many leaders you helped cultivate?”

One of the key hidden topics within the Book of Deuteronomy is the complexity of a successful leadership transfer. While the Torah is very clear about Joshua being the worthy successor to Moses, very little is written about how Joshua will transition into being the leader. What inner obstacles does Joshua face? Is there a vocal minority among the children of Israel that doubt his leadership capabilities? From reading the first chapter in the Book of Joshua, it is clear that the transition was successful. Joshua has quickly gained the confidence of B’nai Yisrael. But was it a smooth transition? Question marks abound. What are the conditions that lead to successful leadership transfer? How much overlap between leaders is necessary or appropriate? What becomes the role of the former leader? What mechanisms need to be in place if and when the new leader experiences early bouts of imperfection/failure?

Leadership transfer is a mysterious art, especially in the life of a place like B’nai Jeshurun. As the new full-time MTM Rabbinic Fellow, I experience this phenomenon in a variety of ways. For example, the BJ Tze’irim community is currently going through its own leadership transition. Just recently. a brand new executive team was elected. Several of the active Tze’irim received the call to take their communal involvement up a notch, and they responded affirmatively. Simultaneously, other key leaders, who have chaired committees and given countless volunteer hours, are taking a necessary step back. Both of these processes are essential to the ongoing vitality of Tze’irim, but they are not always self-evident.

The transition between new leaders and former leaders has a very subtle rhythm that requires all parties involved to listen deeply as they adjust to their new roles and redefine their relationship to each other and the community. Both sides of this equation demand a spiritual discipline. There can be strong temptation to ignore each other or, conversely, to create a sense of over-reliance. Pay attention to the temptation, but do not give in to it. Acknowledge that it is simply difficult to give or to take over the mantle of hard work with a full sense of integrity. A few things should be considered:

Former leaders need encouragement to become mentors to the new leaders. Each new leader will require a different amount and style of mentoring and may not be receptive to certain “advice” in the same ways as their co-leaders and predecessors. Former leaders will need to learn the dance of visibility and invisibility, when to work behind the scenes and when to just show up. New leaders will need the autonomy to make their own mistakes and learn from them so they can spiritually grow into their positions. True leadership confidence comes less from executing a detailed plan to perfection and more from overcoming adversity and learning how to work together.

Sometimes Torah can help us when we realize what is missing. We know very little about the inner struggles that may or may not have accompanied the leadership transfer from Moses to Joshua. What we do know is that Moses experienced much anguish around his death but projected it toward G-d. One can only speculate that part of his anguish was in the relinquishment of his role as Israelite leader. It is not clear that Joshua is ever the sole leader of the Israelites while Moses is still alive. Is it just that the Torah focused on Moses, or was Moses having trouble letting go? Letting go can be one of the greatest spiritual challenges. It is matched only by the challenge of taking hold. How difficult it is, then, to transfer leadership: to witness and experience the simultaneous processes of taking hold and letting go.

May the incoming Tze’irim leadership be blessed with a combination of motivation and appreciation, humility and enthusiasm. May they be lifted up by all the previous leaders of Tze’irim whose hard work enabled them to reach this moment. May the work of all our leaders, past, present, and in every capacity, be infused with a contagious enthusiasm that makes the experience of community-building a blessing and never a burden. And may we all continue to find ways to locate and cultivate the next group of leaders waiting for their moment.