Voices of WRJ: Sh’mini Atzeret—Simchat Torah 5781

October 8, 2020Sara B. Charney


V’zot Hab’rachah, “This is the blessing,” is the Torah portion read on Simchat Torah. This is the final blessing Moses will proclaim to the ten tribes of Israel prior to his death. The tone is positive and forward-looking; Moses’ words are filled with praise and encouragement to all. Moses addresses each tribe individually and blesses them with hopes of protection from enemies, a prosperous and fertile land, and the continuance of the covenant made with God. Each of these aspirations depends on God’s beneficence and power.

Moses addresses the fears, longings, and circumstances of each tribe and empowers each one to continue on their proscribed path. The people will, hopefully, draw courage from his words to cross over into the Promised Land. I find the specificity of Moses’ remarks very moving. What was inherent in his leadership style was that he knew and understood detailed attributes of each of the tribes?

In books and articles on effective leadership that I’ve been reading, there are a few recurring themes: personal humility ranks as the number one criterion. Moses possibly would have remained a content shepherd tending his father-in-law’s flocks had God not selected him and refused to accept his objections to serve due to his speech impediment and other perceived limitations. Another important leadership trait is to give credit to others. Moses acknowledges each of the tribes for their successes and offers blessings. He does not take credit for their achievements nor does he reprimand past behaviours. Moses does not spend his final words of Torah eulogizing himself nor agonizing over how hard his life has been cajoling, rebuking, and guiding thousands of people towards a Promised Land. Instead, his blessing is filled with words of praise, tenderness, reassurance, and love.

A third important leadership trait is to set up your successor for even greater success. Moses had prepared his successor, Joshua:

“Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as Adonai had commanded Moses.” (Deut. 34: 9)

The transition seems to be smooth, with no rebellions amongst the people. It is planful and natural. Rabbi Naamah Kelman observes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary:

“Part of Moses’ blessing involves the ability to dream of what he will not see or experience directly. Affirming the future is what leadership is all about: knowing and accepting that our best dreams may be realized by others who come after us.”

As we conclude the reading of the Torah and immediately begin anew, we can gain strength from Moses’ final words to the Israelites. Let us feel refreshed and invigorated to pursue our goals with humility, to raise and acknowledge others, and to create space for future possibilities:

“A Chasidic tale tells of a bored student’s complaint to his teacher: ‘Why do we have to read the Torah over and over again? The words are the same every year!’ The teacher answered him: ‘The Torah does not change, but you do.’” Siddur Pirchei Kodesh: A Prayerbook for Weekdays, Shabbat, Festivals, and Other Sacred Occasions, p.413

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