Founders' Syndrome and the Ethical Will

For Congregation Ner Shalom

So when I read the Book of Deuteronomy, I confess I get kind of bummed out. Don't get me wrong, I also get plenty bummed out in Leviticus. But for different reasons. Leviticus, with its baroque elaboration of laws: impartiality and impurity and sacrifice and sex, some of it beautiful and universal, some of it punitive and painful; Leviticus, with its repeated refrains of "I am Adonai your God," presents itself as God's word, as direct as we can get it, despite the lurking presence of unnamed and invisible editors. I read Leviticus, and know that I am stuck with this difficult text, which is a very Jewish predicament; and I struggle with it, which is a very Jewish privilege.

But in Deuteronomy, I get bummed out for Moshe Rabenu, Moses our teacher, our great prophet and liberator, making his final speeches to the Children of Israel before they pass into the Promised Land which, Moshe obviously grasps, he will not be doing with them. We are still in the wilderness, but only barely. It is year 40 of the Great Wandering: the 40th year, 11th month, 1st day. Just one moon away from leaving behind nomadic life and becoming instead conquerors, occupiers, settlers and farmers. The life of Israel is about to be unrecognizable. With fewer exceptions than you can count on one hand, there is no one left in this mass of humanity who remembers the slavery in Egypt or the Parting of the Sea. In fact, there's no one who can even remember receiving the law at Sinai except perhaps in a vague and unsettling childhood memory.

This is the final chapter of Moshe's story and the fulfillment of his great work. In partnership with God he changed history, he changed the world. But unlike his Partner, Moshe is about to be left behind. At his death, a few chapters from now, Torah will say that there never arose in Israel another prophet like Moshe. And I suspect Moshe foresees this. He and God had something special, for sure, seeing each other face to face like they did. There would never again be anyone who could know God's will with such certainty or could relay God's word with such credibility.

But there's also something amiss in what should be Moshe's triumphant moment. As he redelivers God's laws, he does so with an extra punch. In this week's portion, Parashat R'eh, he places blessing and curse before the people, offering reward for obedience to God's mitzvot, threatening punishment and death for those who transgress or who worship other gods on the sly. This stuff coming from God in Leviticus might be problematic, but the problem is theological. This stuff coming from Moshe in Deuteronomy is somehow personal and somehow tragic. One hears in it Moshe's sadness and anger and fear at his own mortality.

Poor Moshe. Who am I, nebuch, to pity him, yet I do. Moshe was great, but also tragic. And while other tragic figures like King Lear overtrust the future, Moshe undertrusts it. And so, with nothing short of desperation, he tries to control what will happen next by promising and lecturing and threatening and cajoling. All that we have are his words, which can be interpreted in various ways. But if Deuteronomy were a movie, there would be reaction shots of Israelites listening to him, and we'd know a bit more by seeing whether they were filled with the fear of God, or impatience at Moshe's long speech, or a mix of love and sadness for this lonely 120-year-old man, now in his dotage.

Moshe seems to have a case of what, in the non-profit world, we might call "Founder's Syndrome." He founded the Israelite people as we know them; he did the immense, unimaginable task of leading them - perhaps hundreds of thousands of them - out of slavery and away from their homes and the only life they'd ever known, to reconstitute them with new identity and vision and ambition.  But now Moshe digs the heels of his sandals in deep because he knows change is coming. He doesn't think there is a successor equal to the task of leadership. And he doesn't see the possibility of the people as a whole exerting authority, even though the people who will experience this new life are, arguably, more qualified to step up and lead than Moshe, who can only guess at what the future might bring.

Moshe responds to his not knowing by trying all the harder to control. A calmer, saner Moshe could not possibly have thought that a law that says, "neither add to nor take away from my commandments" could ever be workable. With all due respect to Justice Scalia, one cannot legislate the principle of "no change ever." Yet Moshe makes this very demand as he stands before the people, fiercely protecting what he brought into the world while, my heart imagines, envying, even begrudging the people the future that they will enjoy. Moshe, our Founder, insists that it must happen his way; he can only imagine disaster if it doesn't. 

Of course what also makes Moshe's desperate clinging to his work product tragic is that there but for the grace of God goes any one of us. We all like things to go our way. We all want our contributions appreciated and remembered; we all want legacy; we all want our thumbprint on the future. It is in our nature; perhaps because our spirits feel eternal to us, despite the mortality of our bodies. It seems natural to want to be part of whatever happens next.

But we are all mortal. We all stand at the brink of death, whether that brink is a day or a decade or, God willing, much wider. And most of us realize that we can't orchestrate the doings of things and people that will outlive us. Change will happen, change has to happen. Our successors will do things differently; they will have to. And certainly Moshe knew this. In fact there is a famous midrash that when Moshe ascended the mountain to receive the law, God temporarily transported him to the classroom of Rabbi Akiva, living millennia later, where Moshe Rabenu sat in the eighth row and didn't understand any of the Torah that Akiva taught, despite Akiva calling it Torat Moshe, the Torah of Moses.

Who knows, maybe it was that very vision of a strange and unintelligible universe that made Moshe clutch the Torah that he knew all the tighter.

So in an ever-changing world, what thumbprint can we hope to have on the future? Perhaps the best any of us can do is embodied in the Jewish custom of the ethical will. A message to the future that embodies our values without coercing adherence to them. I have had cause, sadly, to hear the reading of some truly beautiful ethical wills. Full of advice and humor and encouragement and vision. Revealing what moved the writer's soul, written with the hope that it might move the reader's as well.
I think that is the best we can hope for. To provide an ethical legacy, in writing or through our deeds, communicating the great principles that inspired us.

Maybe the Book of Deuteronomy is in fact Moshe's ethical will, albeit a flawed one. And if so, then I think that perhaps the great principle that drove him was kedushah, the holiness that he breathed in when he saw God face to face. This is what inspired him and what he wanted for us. But, growing up in the palace of Pharaoh, his toolbox for constructing kedushah on earth contained more law than poetry. How different might it all have been if Moshe had grown up not in the home of a monarch, but of a musician or a midwife or a mystic? Perhaps the ethical lesson he would have taught would have been closer to one shared in a 14th Century ethical will written by one Asher ben Yechiel who wrote the very opposite of what Moshe expresses in this week's portion. Instead of saying, "I have set before you blessing and curse," Reb Asher writes to those who survive him, "Do not obey the law for reward, nor avoid sin from fear of punishment, but serve God from love."

Ultimately, if we are going to be of service to the future, we must leave a legacy of love and of hope and possibility. Nelson Mandela, right now only 25 years Moshe's junior, will, when he goes, leave a legacy not about how to govern a people but about the possibility of freedom and equality and love. And it will then be other people's jobs to find the right vessels for those values.

We can't see all paths; we certainly can't control them. Still, we owe the future our best efforts - our love and care, even without knowing what the specifics will be. None of us is timeless. Moshe was the leader for his time. We must be the leaders for ours. And we must let future generations lead in theirs. If we are to be prophets, let us be prophets who reassure those who come after that there is always the possibility of making this world better. As it says in the book of Isaiah, mah navu al heharim raglei m'vaser mashmia shalom. How pleasant the footfalls of those who, climbing to the peaks, peek into the world ahead, bearing messages of peace!