“The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.”
Looking back on the past two weeks of political conventions has been frustrating. Everyone I talk to is depressed about the elections. All the disparaging talk and name-calling, the focus on personalities rather than responsibilities, the rhetoric and the bullying are taking a mental toll. Current polls on the trust levels of both candidates conclude that the majority of Americans don’t really trust either nominee, and this comes at a time when America is desperate for strong moral leadership. How we will look back at this strange time in American history: will it be a turning point or not? Will it push the country in the direction of integrity or not?
The most vulnerable time in the life of a people is the baton change of leadership. Letting go of the familiar - even if the familiar is flawed - for the unknown surfaces doubts and anxieties about the future. We think about the larger impact of such shifts - on immigration, on the economy and on foreign policy - and then our more local concerns. How will this change of leadership specifically affect me: my family, my job security, my health benefits?
The statement above in Deuteronomy appears at a transitional moment in Jewish history. Moses’ brother and sister died. It was apparent that his life, too, would soon slip away, letting one great generation of the Bible be eclipsed by a newer generation with its own challenges. Moses spoke to his people at a time when he could no longer fight the inevitable: “I am now 120 years old, and I am no longer able to lead you. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’” This admission of vulnerability and mortality must have been devastating for him and his audience. He had served the people for over 100 years. Letting go of his leadership meant letting go of his very life.
To ensure a smooth transition, Moses stressed that God would be with the people no matter what. Leaders come and go, but an enduring divine presence would never leave. The two verses before the one above create a context in which to understand Moses’ wish for the people as he is about to leave them. Moses used the same words that God would use repeatedly when Joshua took his place: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them (your enemies), for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (31:6) Then Moses gave Joshua the moral authority of the camp with a similar pep talk: “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land...’” (31:7)
Moses called upon God to provide a successor so that Moses would know that his investment would carry through to the next generation. He wasn’t looking for a simple replacement. Really great leaders want to be overshadowed by the greatness of the next leader. “Succession planning doesn’t start with people. It starts with the requirements of the position,” states professor of business David Ulrich. It’s not only about personality. Succession planning is understanding what the job demands first.
The former CEO of Xerox, Anne M. Mulcahy, wrote that, “One of the things we often miss in succession planning is that it should be gradual and thoughtful, with lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it’s almost a non-event when it happens.” I hate to break it to her, but for us presidential elections are never non-events. Some are more thoughtful and transparent than others. Some offer more information and greater perspective than others. Voting today often feels like entering a fierce confrontation rather than a national succession planning venture. And because of the vehemence today, many of us are feeling embattled instead of excited.
Moses brought light to the people by emphasizing what endures when change is taking place. Maybe we need to take a page out of his political playbook to fight the depression. Instead of focusing on who will be president for a few years, let’s start talking about what got us here hundreds of years ago and what will endure long past these anguished days of politics: our freedoms, our strength, our collective national bond. I have to remind myself that we might feel depressed about our leadership, but we should never be depressed about our country.