Shabbat Hukkat 5773

When it comes time to transfer leadership from one person to another, how should the community be involved? Does this take place in the private space, or in the public sphere?

On this Shabbat of the installation of new officers at HHJC, I’d like to notice something that happens in our Torah portion, Hukkat. God tells Moshe to prepare his brother Aharon to die, and to have the mantle of the high priesthood–clothing and all–transferred to Elazar. Moshe carries out God’s directive, which didn’t mention an audience beyond the three men in question. Moshe, however, seems to have decided to make this quite public:

“Moses did as the LORD had commanded. They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last” (Numbers 20:27-29).

As we read these verses, we see the tension between the private and public elements of the priestly installation ritual. The entire community sees the three men ascend the mountain. Do they then see Aharon stripped of his uniform? Do they see him die? Answers in the affirmative would be troubling, for modestly and dignity would be compromised if this happened in full view. Then, when only two men descend the mountain, “the whole community knew” what happened–only the Hebrew word translated as “knew” is vayiru, meaning “they saw.” What did they see, and how did they translate the message from their eyes?

This tension between the private and public elements of leadership transition is a fitting topic for exploration on our Installation Shabbat. Join us as we celebrate both our outgoing and incoming executive administrations, and we’ll also look at a midrash that shows how little has changed these many years in our thoughts about leadership. 

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi David Wise