The Mantle of Moral Leadership

It’s been quite a year so far, and we’re only a few days in.

Last Friday evening, as we welcomed in the year 5781, we learned of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, perhaps the most prominent, certainly the most iconic, Jew in American public life.

Her death is monumental, both because of her legacy as a jurist and a trailblazer, and also because of the weight that a vacant Supreme Court seat adds to this election, already the most consequential of a lifetime.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, we lose another significant leader, perhaps the most notable of all time: Moses. At this point, as the Torah closes, we find him near the end of his journey. He has led the people out from slavery in Egypt, guided them as they received the Torah from God, and encouraged them as they wandered through the desert for forty years. Now he stands upon Mount Nebo, gazing beyond the Jordan River into the Promised Land, the long-awaited destination to which he has led his people for so long. But God tells him that he will not make it across the river. He will die on this mountaintop. He will never arrive at his destination, and the Israelites will have to continue on their journey without him leading the way.

Why do leaders disappear when it feels like we need them the most?

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that we read about the death of Moses as we prepare for Yom Kippur. In this Torah portion, we learn that Moses can’t be our leader forever. On Yom Kippur, we prepare ourselves to take on the banner of authority that he left behind. We reflect on our capacity to forgive, our ability to make principled choices, and our desire to do the right thing. We take up the mantle of moral leadership, perhaps the same one that Moses left to all of us, the Jewish people, upon his death.

As we reflect upon what it means for each of us to live up to the aspirations bequeathed by our leaders — and demanded of us by our tradition — during Yom Kippur, I hope you will join us for our engaging, reflective, and meaningful services. They will begin tonight with Shabbat on Instagram Live at 6 pm. Then, on Sunday night, we will begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre, followed by services all day on Monday. In the Torah, Yom Kippur is called a Shabbat Shabbaton, a “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” a day of complete reflection, rest and, hopefully, renewal. I hope you will spend it with us.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah — May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.