Filling a Vacancy

Transitions in leadership are always challenging.  From an elementary school class getting a long-term substitute teacher to starting a new job; from a congregation choosing new clergy to the president appointing a new Supreme Court justice.  Change is hard.

However, this is nothing new.

The Talmud (see BT Berachot 27b) preserves the story a very difficult transition from approximately 2,000 years ago.  Rabban Gamliel – whom we know from the Passover Haggadah – publicly humiliated a fellow sage by the name Rabbi Joshua.  The other rabbis were outraged by Gamliel’s behavior and ousted him from his position as “Nasi” or head of the Jewish community.  Thus, they needed to find a successor.  They immediately rejected Rabbi Joshua as a candidate because he was involved in the incident which precipitated the vacancy.  They were not comfortable with Rabbi Akiva becoming “Nasi,” despite his vast knowledge, because they felt that he did not have the gravitas for the position.

After much back and forth, the rabbis asked Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah to be the next “Nasi.”  He was intellectually qualified for the position and he could trace his lineage back to Ezra the Scribe.  The only problem was that he was very young.  He took some time to think about it and wisely consulted with his wife.  But, he presumably could not do anything about his age.  Then, according to the story, his beard turned white and he said, “Behold I am about seventy years old.”  (That line is also preserved in the Passover Haggadah.)  He accepted the position.

Rabbi Elazar immediately began instituting some changes, causing Rabban Gamliel to reconsider his behavior.   Rabban Gamliel went so far as to say, “Perhaps, God forbid, I withheld Torah from Israel!”

The two sages eventually worked out a way to share the position which allowed Rabban Gamliel to save face, but also allowed Rabbi Elazar to introduce new ideas.  The community was doubly blessed by this compromise.  They benefited from the wisdom and experience of Gamliel, but also from the intellect and innovation of Rabbi Elazar.

No two situations are exactly the same.  However, certain principles endure.  A transition which gives everyone involved a measure of comfort and a sense of continuity is more likely to be a successful one.



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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