Its not so hard to tell when its time for a change

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

Nearly every day, people sit in my office and ask how they can come to know what God wants of them. Studying this week’s parashah, I found a simple and powerful answer.

As Moses begins to review Israelite history in his first discourse to the people, he describes the Divine command to move on from Mount Sinai toward the Land of Israel.

“Adonai our God spoke to us at Horev, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country … Go, take possession of the land. …” (Deuteronomy 1:6-8) Immediately thereafter, Moses recalls that he reached a point where he could no longer carry the mantle of leadership alone. “Thereupon I said to you at that time, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself … Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.'” (1:9,13) From this point on, appointed tribal leaders would assist Moses in the tasks of community leadership.

I have often thought of this passage as a teaching about burnout: When a leader finds that his or her energy, vision or compassion for the people flags, it is time to ask for help and to invite others to participate. But this year I found a subtle but radical reading in two Chassidic commentaries on this text.

According to the Mei Shilo’ach, Moses’ work was in leading the people to accept the Torah. The task of leading the people into the land required a different kind of leader; this was Joshua’s work. Thus, when God said, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain” (v. 6), announcing that a new stage in the people’s journey had begun, Moses’ heart sank, and he knew that his time of leadership had passed. God’s message to the people about their journey contained a hidden instruction

to Moses that it was time for him to let go.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe, interpreting this same passage, looks deeply into Moses’ experience of being forced to confront the end of his term of leadership. The rebbe writes that when Moses lamented, “I cannot bear the burden of you myself,” he had already recognized that it was God’s will that Joshua take the people forward into the Land of Israel.

But Moses was not yet ready to let go. When he complained, “I’m tired, I can’t do this myself anymore,” he was really asking the people to intervene with God on his behalf, begging them to pray to God that he be allowed to lead them into the land. But they did not understand his hidden message. They responded by applauding the idea of delegating responsibility to other leaders. Reading their reaction closely, Moses came to understand that the people would move on without him.

How often does life bring us a moment of change, when we hold onto old roles, old tasks, old ideas about ourselves, even when the evidence before us clearly communicates that it is time for something new? It is an inevitable dynamic of our lives that we resist, protest and battle change. But if we pay attention to what life is telling us, it is clear when it is time to move on.

The bad news is that all of us suffer repeatedly as Moses did, when he realized that his work was done. It may be when our children grow up and leave us, when our responsibilities at work are given to a colleague, or when the needs of an institution change such that our service is no longer needed in the same way. We hold on to our old roles as if our very lives depended on things remaining static, as if, like Moses, to let go of our self-definition would mean to die.

The good news is that it is not so difficult to find out what God/Life/ The Holy wants of us. If, a bit like Moses, we can attend to the unfolding of our lives with clear sight and a soul open to guidance, we will know when one piece of our work is done and another is soon to begin.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservatve rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at