Humble Blessings in Losing
Parashat V’zot HaB’racha — Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot 5777
The book of Genesis closes with a touching family scene. Jacob, who has become Israel, is dying. His precious son, Joseph, whom he presumed dead, has returned to him in his final moments. Israel draws his children close saying: “I am dying now, but God is with you, and will bring you back to the land of your ancestors.”
In this final scene of Genesis, Israel blesses his children. A promise is made: God is with you; God will bring you to the land of your ancestors. Each child receives a blessing as well. The children are gathered around their father Israel as he says to each: “Reuben, my first-born, you are my strength and first fruit of my vigor… You, Judah, your brothers shall heap praise on you… Naphtali, a mountain-ewe born, bears lovely lambs in the folds.” Israel tells each child who he is and who he will continue to be. And then, Israel offers all of them a blessing, “Through the Mighty One of Jacob, through the Shepherd, Israel’s Rock, by the God of your father, who helps you, Shaddai, who blesses you….” Israel offered “each one with a blessing that befit him.”
In Jacob’s final moment of letting go, offering his children a charge and a blessing is the priority. Jacob communicates the values he holds for his progeny, praying they will carry those values forward. The man who was born with the name Jacob, who earned the name Israel as he wrestled with an angel, and who fathered the twelve tribes, lets go, and places the power in their hands to continue toward the land of their ancestors.
Moses mirrors this blessing in the final chapters of Deuteronomy. As Jacob, the father of Israel blessed his children, Moses, the teacher, prophet, and leader of Israel, blesses his people. As we see of biblical blessings, they are both prayers and prophecy: “This is the blessing with which Moses—a man of God—blessed the Children of Israel before his death…. May Reuben live and not die, though few be his numbers… Of Benjamin he said: Beloved of the Eternal, he rests secure beside God, who protects him always, as he rests between God’s shoulders… Rejoice, O Zebulun, on your journeys, and Issachar, in your tents.”
Just as Jacob blesses and charges each child, Moses prays for each tribe. Israel passes blessings to his children; Moses speaks prayers for each of the twelve children who through the Exodus transform into the twelve tribes.
After offering the prayer, “Moses ascended from the steps of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Eternal showed him the whole land.” The land that he would not enter. In this moment, Moses lets go. His power now transferred to a new leader, Joshua guides the Children of Israel across the Jordan River, into the land of their ancestors. And Moses lets go, dying at the rich age of 120. As our Torah concludes, our tradition states: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the Eternal singled out, face to face.”
Moses’s leadership was something special. Jacob, becoming Israel, was something special. And in their deaths, they recorded their legacy not by focusing on their own achievements, but by looking to the future with hope for their children. God will take you—not me—to the land of our ancestors. It is not my obligation to complete the task. I took you along the way. Now you are responsible.
Our leading ancestor’s final blessings are acts of grace and humility. Humility—anavah in Hebrew—is a key virtue in our tradition. Jacob and Moses exemplify it as a key marker of leadership. This value was carried through in the rabbinic tradition as well. In the 2nd and 1st Centuries before the common era, Hillel and Shammai, and their schools, contested with one another about proper practices for our community. Both were thought leaders in the community of Israel. And with the vast majority of each debate, the halacha, the directions go with Hillel. In one contest between the two teachers, they are at an impasse. No one knows who is correct. They fiercely debate how we are to practice Judaism. Hillel says to do it one way, while Shammai says to do it another. Their followers in one instance take up arms against one another over their debates. As the moment comes to a fever pitch, a bat kol, a heavenly voice calls out, “Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, these and those are both the words of the living God!” Both Hillel and Shammai are putting forward practices that would please God. Yet, the voice continues, “v’halacha k’beit Hillel, but the halacha aligns with Hillel.” Why does Hillel win in these debates? Because of humility. Because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious; because they studied and taught the ideas of Shammai as well as their own.
Leadership takes humility and grace. And in contests this appears at its most profound. Jacob will not guide his children back to the land of their ancestors. So, he lets them go with a blessing. “Moses had always rebuked his people, but in the end he gives them words of hope.” Moses will not lead the people across the Jordan, so he invokes that same tradition of offering a concessionary blessing. Both are acts of humility and grace.
I wonder what it takes to learn such humility. In our culture, especially among men, to be humble and to show grace is to make yourself vulnerable. They are signs of weakness. In our masculine, warrior culture we celebrate the victor. We get the job done. A soldier friend once told me, “A warrior is a man who does violence so those who are unwilling can sleep soundly at night.” Do not tell me how rough the seas are, just bring in the ship. We push and push and push until the job gets done. Or, if we run the risk of failing, we mask our shortcomings, or we say the competition was rigged from the start. Instead of giving the winning team the trophy, every athlete gets a medal, or conversely, no one is singularly the victor. We live in a culture that celebrates strength and masks weakness with a myth of success. Everyone-gets-a-medal softens the consequences of a contest, and does not allow us to practice good sportsmanship. We do not practice humility when everyone wins. Humility has no place in the everyone-gets-a-trophy culture, because we only learn humility when we admit that we lost fare-and-square. When we confront loss, we encounter humility.
When Al Gore lost his presidential bid to George W. Bush, he showed humility. After such a nasty battle through the election and into the Supreme Court, he let go of his bid for the Presidency. He conceded, saying,
“While I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it… For the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility … [to] do everything possible to help [the President-elect] bring Americans together.”
The focus of his remarks was his commitment to the future. He did not rebuke the people, or the Supreme Court, for putting Bush in office. His focus was on democratic ideals—to bring Americans together. Losing gracefully requires a refocusing about what matters—that a leader is part of a collective, which matters more than their own ambitions, alone.
Sometimes, leaders in moments of loss, can also communicate their hopes beyond the current situation. Sometimes, they can continue to lead, even when they lose. George H.W. Bush humbly exalted the American democratic process in his concession to Bill Clinton. He said, “American must always come first.” Then directly addressing young voters, the former President said,
“I remain absolutely convinced that we are a rising nation. We have been in an extraordinarily difficult period, but do not be deterred [or] kept away from public service by the smoke and fire of a campaign year or the ugliness of politics…. I urge you, the young people of this country, to participate in the political process. It needs your idealism. It needs your drive. It needs your conviction.”
Bush offered a blessing of a different sort. It was an expression of hope for our nation, even in the face of his loss.
In such ways, our leaders over recent history have taught us how to lose with grace, how to lead with humility. At the end of their journeys, Israel and Moses turn to the people and offer words of blessings and hope. They rebuked before. But in these final moments, as they let go, as they lose, they turn to hope. They act humbly. May we, in our own moments of loss, recognize our responsibility to the next generation, who will carry the narrative forward, helping us arrive at the land promised to our ancestors. As Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote earlier this week, “Rising. Healing. Linking arms. Moving on. That’s what’s supposed to happen in the aftermath of even the bitterest elections. At least that’s what vanquished candidates are supposed to encourage. May the loser in this election uphold that tradition. So very much rides on it.”