When it came time for the great master, the Baal Shem Tov, to die, he gathered his disciples around his bedside. They asked him who they should pick to be his successor and he told them, “I cannot tell you who to choose, but I can tell you who not to choose. Whoever comes and applies for the position, ask him: how do you overcome pride? And if he says that he knows, then he is not the one.”
The battle against pride is a never-ending one in which we go forward two steps and back one step, and sometimes forward one step and backward two steps. Whoever is sure and smug and confident that they know how exactly to overcome their own pride has already lost the battle.
If anything, the first and last step of our journey through life is to know that there are things we just don’t know.
This dynamic is very present in this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech. Moses is now in the last hours of his life, and in these moments he completes his writing of the Torah (Deut.31:24), and in an act of succession, he hands it to Joshua to read to the people.
As God relates that Moses’ time on earth comes to an end, in a remarkable attack on Moses’ pride, God tells him that people will inevitably stray from the covenant and they will be punished. In a particularly biting remark, God says, “I will keep my Face from them.” (Deut. 31:17-18) Recall that the only wish Moses had of God after a lifetime of leadership was to see God’s presence. (Exodus 33:18) At the end of his life, Moses is faced with a stark and humiliating reality. After years and years of hard work, God seems to be saying that Moses’s leadership could be for naught. Even at the end of his life, Moses must overcome his own pride. Luckily the commentator Seforno relates that the word, “vayelech” (Deut. 31:1) is parallel to the verse that announces Moses’s birth. “Now there went (heb. vayelech) a man from the house of Levi.” (Exodus 2:1) Both in his coming into this world and his going out, the Torah uses the same word, vayelech in order to teach that Moses was propelled through life by his love of God and the people of Israel. (Sfrorno ad locum)
The lessons of succession and overcoming our own pride are never ending. Both Moses and Baal Shem Tov show us that the depth of wisdom of leadership is not in knowledge, but in humility. As we move from Rosh Hashanah into Yom Kippur, the humility of both leaders is something we can take to heart.
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life