Three transitions, one future

Here’s one of the most pressing questions within the Messianic Jewish community: Who will be the leaders of the future? I’m not asking only about professional leaders and rabbis, but also about the member-leaders within every congregation, who are equally essential to the vision of a Jewish people movement for Yeshua.

We’ve been asking this question for several years throughout the Messianic Jewish community, and it keeps rising higher on the priority list. You can see the same priority in the big narratives of Scripture. Our biblical forebears are all concerned with passing on their legacy, along with the responsibilities and blessings that go with it. They’re all concerned with the transition to future leadership.

Numbers 20 portrays three transitions that shed light on the way ahead of us.

The Israelites come into the wilderness of Zin, discover that there is no water, and start complaining. The Lord is compassionate towards them, and tells Moses, “Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water” (Num. 20:8). But Moses is understandably upset after 40 years of Israelite kvetching, and takes the opportunity to denounce the people as rebels. He scolds them—“Must we bring water for you out of this rock?”—and strikes the rock, instead of just speaking to it (Num. 20:10-11). Moses ends up misrepresenting God, who wants to show mercy to the thirsty Israelites. For this sin, Moses will not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. Not long afterwards, he begins the transition to Joshua, the next-generation leader (Num. 27:15-23).

Joshua is an iconic figure in leadership transition, but before he receives smicha (ordination) from Moses, another next-generation leader will emerge. Right after the incident at the rock, the Lord tells Moses, “Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son; for Aaron shall be gathered to his people and die there” (Num. 20:25-26). Joshua will receive a lot from Moses, but Eleazar receives the very garments that Aaron had worn. Joshua’s authority is on hold until the Israelites are ready to enter the Promised Land; Eleazar assumes his full authority in the wilderness and carries it into the Land. Eleazar receives his position by inheritance and assumes the very same role as his father. Joshua isn’t related to Moses at all and has a different sort of role, so that right after he takes over, the Torah notes that no prophet like Moses has arisen in Israel (Deut 34:10).

Eleazar represents continuity, bearing the riches of our heritage into a new generation; Joshua represents completion, a dramatic step forward to fulfill what the old generation began.

We talk a lot about Joshua, but our community needs Eleazar as well. We need both the up-front, charismatic leader who can mobilize us to lay hold of the vision; and the lower-profile leader who ensures that the supply lines are in place to make the mobilization successful. We need Joshua’s work in the power and presence of the ruach, and we need Eleazar’s priestly connection to the riches of Jewish heritage.

The community needs both Eleazar and Joshua, and they both need the community.

The people—the community of Israel—see Moses ascend Mount Hor with Aaron and Eleazar and come down with Eleazar alone (Num. 20:27). They mourn Aaron for thirty days, but they’re ready to accept Eleazar when he begins to stand next to Moses and issue commands just as his father had done (Num. 26:1-3). Likewise, when Joshua’s time comes, the people tell him they’ll follow him just as they followed Moses (although we might hope they do a little better!), and then add  the words rak hazak v’amatz, “Only be strong and brave!” (Joshua 1:16-18). Eleazar and Joshua are God-equipped leaders, but they can’t lead apart from the embrace and empowerment of the community.

I hesitate to use these examples of transition, though, because on one level they don’t apply to us. Unlike Moses and Aaron, the current parental generation in the Messianic Jewish community isn’t quite ready to be gathered to our people. Some of us might be eligible for a senior discount when we go to see Super 8, but we’ve got years of service ahead of us. The transition process, however, starts long before we reach the end of the line. And it applies not just to leaders, but to the whole community, all of us. One sign of healthy congregational life is that everyone is involved in the transition process, whether you’re 18 or 81 or somewhere in between.

Mentoring a Joshua-type leader includes helping him or her respect the role of the Eleazar-type of leader, learning to be a team player who doesn’t get wrapped up in his own charisma but realizes how dependent he and the whole enterprise is on other types of leaders. Joshua must learn to complete the vision in continuity with the efforts of the previous generation. Nothing makes new leadership harder to accept than the sense that it is overturning and disrespecting what has gone before. Or, to turn that around, mentoring Joshua includes instilling respect for what has gone before and helping him see that he’s building upon it, not replacing it. Eleazar can be his great ally in this task.

Eleazar types, on the other hand, might not be as easy to recognize as Joshua, and might need more encouragement to step into their role. Like Joshua they need training, but they also need to see their role as essential, to see that continuity isn’t a matter of just maintaining the status quo, but of bearing the riches of our heritage into a new generation, so that it can complete the vision.

And there’s a third figure in this story, Miriam. The Midrash links the water crisis at the beginning of Numbers 20 to the death of Miriam. Miriam was a prophet and a righteous woman, who led the victory song after the splitting of the sea,

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)

Soon afterwards the people came to the place called Massah and Meribah (Ex. 17:7), where they received a miraculous supply of water (after some of their famous kvetching, of course), which was provided, according to the Midrash, because of the merit of Miriam. A full generation later the people arrive at the same spot, “the waters of Meribah,” where the waters fail upon the death of Miriam. The text speaks of the rock five times in Numbers 20:8-10, suggesting that it’s the same rock that Moses had struck back in Exodus 17. In the Midrash this rock becomes a moveable well supplying water to the Israelites throughout their wanderings (Ta’anit 9a; see also Num. 21:17, Avot 5.6).

Rav Shaul seems to have this same rock in mind when he tells the Corinthians,

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were immersed into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Messiah. 1 Cor. 10:1-4

If Eleazar stands for continuity and Joshua for completion, Miriam represents connection. She is the link between the people and the waters of the ruach that ultimately flow from Messiah himself. Just as the survival of the Israelites depended on water, so the survival of our community depends on connection with the steady supply of ruach, the wellspring of God’s spirit flowing among us.

What does Miriam look like? How can we spot her in our congregations? She might have a tambourine and be a worship leader, the kind who doesn’t draw attention to herself, but who leads others into worship. Or she might be a quiet member who prays a lot and remembers the essentials of trusting in God and his word, when more visible leaders are pressured and distracted by all the demands upon them. She bears a sense of connection to God whether she’s close to the control panel or not. Leaders—both Joshua and Eleazar—need to recognize and honor the pray-ers and spirit-connectors in the congregation.

We need different types of leaders, Joshua, Eleazar, and Miriam, and they need each other—and they need the whole community, every one of us, as well. When Miriam led the victory song at the sea, “all the women went out after her.” The community itself is the key to moving forward; embracing and empowering both Joshua and Eleazar, and supplying many who will join Miriam in declaring the Lord’s glorious triumph and remaining connected to its source.


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