Commissioning a New Leader on Inauguration Day

Every week, the Union for Reform Judaism publishes a commentary on the weekly Torah portion on their website. Rabbi Skloot is writing the URJ’s d’var Torah for the Book of Numbers, which we will share with you every Friday, here, on this blog. Shabbat shalom!

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

“Tomorrow.” That was the final line of Aaron Sorkin’s memorable television drama, “The West Wing,” which came to an end in 2006.

The scene: President Jed Bartlett and First Lady Abbey Bartlett find themselves aboard Air Force One for a final flight following the inauguration of the new president. The couple look careworn and melancholy. Abbey asks Jed for his thoughts, and Jed replies with one of the most memorably-delivered and poignant lines in television history. Roll the credits.

“Tomorrow.” In all its simplicity, the single word captured the immensity of the former president’s uncertainty and anxiety at a moment of transition. We might imagine the fictional President Bartlett identified with Moses in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Pinchas.

At this point in the Book of Numbers, we find Moses’ term of service moving toward a conclusion and God begins planning for his succession. God tells Moses, “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired individual, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey” (Numbers 27:18-20).

Hearing these instructions could not have been anything but painful for Moses. The leader of the Israelites for so long, how could he imagine anyone else in his place? And yet, they were perhaps comforting too. There would be no power vacuum. God would not let the progress of the last forty years fade away. The political transition would be a smooth one, free of upheaval and discord.

Like so many verses in the Torah, God’s instructions are more than they seem, of course. Our commentators puzzle over the meaning of the phrase “commission him in their sight” (v. 19). What does this entail?

According to Rashi and the midrash, Sifrei, Joshua’s “commissioning” involved Moses giving his young successor a public charge. Joshua should know, the midrash explains, that the people are “troublesome and insubordinate” and despite the fine trappings of his office, leading them into the Promised Land will be no picnic.

Nachmanides, however, takes issue with this interpretation. A gifted Jewish communal leader himself, he suggests that it is improbable Moses would have spoken so harshly about the people in a public address, that is, “in the sight” of all the Israelites. Such advice would be more appropriate for a private chat.

Rather, Nachmanides teaches, Moses instructed Joshua in the proper administration of Israelite government and justice. Such words would instill popular confidence in Joshua’s leadership, for he is Moses’ disciple. “They will know that Joshua will walk before them along the paths of truth, since his master commanded him to do so,” Nachmanides writes.

In a few months’ time, the United States will inaugurate a new (nonfictional) president. Over the last two centuries, various traditions have emerged commemorating this event. On January 20th, there will be a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue; ceremonies on the Capitol steps; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will administer the presidential oath of office; prayers will be uttered, poetry recited, and speeches intoned; all followed by lavish festivities. In perhaps the most intimate and unheralded of inauguration rituals, President Obama will write a private letter to his successor and leave it in the Oval Office.

None of these events, except for the oath, is prescribed by the United States Constitution. The Constitution stipulates only that the new president, “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office . . . shall take the . . . Oath or Affirmation” and that he [or she] should be inaugurated on the “20th day of January.” Yet, we — our leaders and the people they lead — need these rituals. We need them for the same reason that the Children of Israel needed to see Moses “commissioning” Joshua with their own eyes.

We need to see, see with our own eyes, that our leaders respect the basic institutions of government. We need to observe the transfer of power and know that one generation’s leadership has given way to another peacefully. All tomorrows are filled with anxiety. And we need to be able to imagine, even in cynical times like ours, a tomorrow full of the possibility for renewal, change, and hope.

Rabbi Skloot’s commentary originally appeared on