Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from our new contributor, Rabbi Barbara Bortz.
As you cannot help but know, Queen Elizabeth II died earlier this month. I’m not a monarchist – I was raised in that most republican of all countries, the USA, and when I became a Brit and was offered the choice of an oath or affirmation of allegiance, I choose the latter. I know many people avoided becoming naturalised here because they did not want to be subjects instead of citizens. Nevertheless, I find it astonishing that she began her reign in the year of my birth, and I admit to some teary eyes watching the various films about her during the week of her mourning.
Deuteronomy is the textual equivalent of those films, the history of Moses and his service to the people, his highs and lows, leading us to Nitzavim, Vayeilekh, and Haazinu, his death and the public mourning thereof. And a whisper about the future – the king is dead, long live the king.`
Moses enters our story in a startling manner, demonstrating great courage when, despite being one of the royals and therefore wealthy and privileged, he stands up for slaves and the injustice of their mistreatment. He has a mystical encounter with God, and the intimations of his life’s mission, which he humbly attempts to decline, then bravely accepts. He – what is the expression people are so fond of – speaks truth to power on behalf of the suffering Israelites, to persuade Pharoah to let them go, and then turns his work towards persuading the people to free themselves from servile attitudes and commit themselves to God and become a holy people.
His life, as we read, was often a nightmare. He was both administrative and legislative leader all in one, a go-between for the people and God, a therapist, helping to mediate between the fear, despair and rank superficiality of the people, and he bore the awesome responsibility of meeting God ponim el ponim, face to face. No descriptions of him playing with dogs, or having a laugh with a friend. Even his family proved difficult to manage.
After all of what he endured to get to the edge of the wilderness, why was he not allowed to lead them into the land? The usual explanation was that it was because he lost his temper with the people and disobeyed God in the process, at the waters of merivah, but I wonder if it is simpler than that. New historical circumstances require different leadership skills and refreshed perspectives. Just as the queen served through the times of war and empire, so Moses served through the Exodus and the Revelation. For the sake of the future, Moses needed to move aside for the people to assume responsibility for themselves, and for their relationship with God, as they proclaimed there again at the threshold of their entry, and with Joshua, neither prophet nor teacher, new potential arose for the people.
I would assert something similar with regard to the queen. I waded into a bit of controversy when I posted on Facebook that, although I acknowledged that Elizabeth had ‘queened’ extremely well, was an admirable and fine leader, I thought this was an opportune time to lay monarchy to rest, playing my role as the prophet Samuel, warning against the establishment of a monarchy. Many commented, insisting that a nation could either have a monarch, or a president, the spoken and unspoken fear that ‘President’ inevitably brings Trump. The monarchy was essential to prevent that, they maintained. And there it was – people want leaders, no, they want superheroes, stars, sporting greats, messiahs, and what Rabbi Jack Bloom called Symbolic Exemplars, leaders who are experienced as, treated as, and expected to act as substitutes for Jewish tradition, and even for God.
Many people bestow upon an idealised ‘other’ the power to make sense of life, to locate clarity, stability, and answers within that ‘one’ and thereby help us to understand a world that is often bewildering. As my friend Rabbi Richie Address wrote to me, “We fear the knowledge that we are alone, and that much of what we will make of life rests within our hands.” Anything rather than face full on the fundamental questions about how to find meaning in life because, and I believe this strongly, there is no a priori meaning, just that which we forge and create. And it is hard work. And it can be painful and frightening.
So what about Moses, as we visit him on the precipice of his own death? Moses’s vision was similar to that of the queen, in that it came with the imprimatur of divine calling, hers inherited, his bestowed, neither democratically ‘elected’. Both were modest, both avowedly religious. Both were very old. And both worked hard until the day they died.
Moses was given a mission – to bring the people out of Egypt and to Sinai, to accept a covenant with God. And from there, to lead them to the land promised them. Here in Nitzavim, he assembles the people and asks them to reaffirm their covenant with God, which they do – the verb ‘nitzav’’ means ‘to position oneself,’ an active decision to place oneself somewhere rather than passively simply being there. Then Moses dies, and as Torah tells us, his burial spot is unknown, nor we do not mention him in the Haggadah at Pesach, all of which to ensure we do not place human beings, however worthy, at the centre of our worship. Not even Moses! And who better than you in Poland to understand the dangers of placing a human being at the centre of a nation – we only need to look at Putin, or back further, to Hitler, to understand the dark flipside of charismatic leadership.
We are told concerning the Queen that she united the nation and inspired people, but did she? Could she even have done so? She may have been admired and loved, but the UK is a nation on the precipice of disaster, torn in half by the Brexit vote, and by schisms between North, where I live, and South. Scotland may still leave, Northern Ireland is in turmoil once more, again due to issues with Brexit. There is rampant xenophobia, many Polish people bearing the brunt of this. And so on.
Did Moses succeed? Let’s look at the Jewish people. Are we yet unified within our religious world, dedicated to the highest of values? I wish we were, but we definitely are not.
Given all of this, I question the core idea that we need inspiration from symbolic exemplars, queens, or even prophets. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “At the end of his life, Moses recognized one great failure of his leadership. He had taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he hadn’t taken Egypt out of the Israelites. He had changed his people’s fate, but he hadn’t changed their character… So long as there is a Moses performing miracles, the people do not have to accept responsibility for themselves…”
This is the excruciating task of the HH days ahead, to accept responsibility for themselves. There are limits to that, as I will discuss on Rosh Hashanah. But that seems to be Moses’s fervent wish, as he ends his life: ‘It is not in heaven, it is in your mouth to do it, choose life.” There is an oft-quoted midrash, whose punchline is, when you appear in olem habo, the world to come, they will not ask you why were you not Moses, but rather, why were you not yourself.
As I wrote this, I became rather more agnostic about that the idea of an inspirational figurehead. I read another compelling passage by Jonathan Sachs, where he also argues for the opposite. He stated, “There is a danger in a religion like Judaism, with so many clear cut rules … that we may forget that there are areas of life which have no rules, only role models, but which are no less religiously significant for that…There are text books and there are text people. We learn virtue less by formal instruction than by finding virtuous people and observing how they live. Sometimes we make a difference less by what we do than by what we are.” And I thought, perhaps those who earned their prominence, a Marek Edelman, or a David Attenborough, are worthy of emulation.
The task is still the same and whether motivated by a Moses or a Queen Elizabeth, an Edelman or an Attenborough, or through ones own religious experience, or in reading an inspiring text, it is ultimately up to the individual to accept responsibility for what they do in life and situate that inside of themselves, which is the message of these days of repentance. Otherwise it is still too easy to wave a flag and then vote to keep immigrants out, or to carefully examine ones food, but then insult another person. It is set before you today…
 Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks
 Ibid. To Heal a Fractured World. P.239