“Parsha and Purpose” – Pinchas 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha
“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders“
Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders”
After wandering for 40 years in the desert, the Jewish People will soon be led into the Promised Land.
But their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, will not be accompanying them.
This was made painfully clear to Moshe in the Torah portion two weeks ago, when he famously struck a rock in order to draw water from it, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded.
God explains to Moshe that he will not merit to cross the threshold of the desert into Israel:
כַּאֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם פִּי בְּמִדְבַּר צִן בִּמְרִיבַת הָעֵדָה לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי בַמַּיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם
For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water. (Numbers 27:14)
And now, in this week’s portion of Pinchas, God reiterates the punishment, figuratively pouring salt in Moshe’s wound.
In fact, the narrative that Moshe will be replaced by another leader and not merit to enter the Land of Israel will be repeated no fewer than five more times between now and the account of Moshe Rabbeinu’s death.
Surely Moshe comprehended this news the first time. What is the lesson we learn from its repetition?
A careful look at the events preceding each time the message is given to Moshe hints at a possible answer: Moshe is not being punished merely for striking the rock. Moshe is being replaced because he is unable to engage the next generation.
When the first generation of Israelites leave Egypt were involved in the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe shows amazingly strong leadership qualities.
He is willing to sacrifice his own life for his people:
וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ
Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written!” (Exodus 32:32)
In this week’s portion, however, after the Jewish People engage in idolatrous behavior, the disconnect between Moshe and the second generation is woefully apparent.
He simply doesn’t understand them.
They were not born and raised in the crushing slave experience in Egypt. They live with Divine miracles on a daily basis. Their clothing grows with them and their food and drink comes from the Heavens!
Moshe had high hopes for this unencumbered younger generation. He envisioned how their comfortable lives would enable them to devote their time to Torah study.
But instead of striving to achieve greatness, they are rebellious and demanding.
Deeply frustrated by this behavior, Moshe seemingly gives up on them. When action is required, he takes no initiative.
When the people engage in hedonistic and idolatrous indulgences, as they do in this week’s parsha, Moshe doesn’t intervene. All he can do is weep. (Numbers 25:6)
This is not the Moshe of the past, the active protector and leader of the Jewish People.
And for that reason, his fate is sealed. He must step down.
Moshe cannot negotiate their needs; he cannot offer any resolution.
This is not the Moshe of the past who was able to see the silver lining in clouds much darker than this.
Every time an issue pops up, Moshe is no longer the pro-active protector/leader of the Jewish People; he realizes that he can no longer suffer their impudence at the moment.
Moshe turns to God using this language:
יִפְקֹד ה’ אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל הָעֵדָה
Let Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a person over the congregation who can tend to the diverse needs of all people;
אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם
who will go out before them;
וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם…
someone who will bring the people together… (27:16-17)
Moshe says that a leader is someone who can tackle the needs of each person, who inspires people to think higher and live more purposefully, who will advocate for them, and who can unite them.
Just as Moshe articulated the leadership qualities necessary for the generation after his, we too need to connect with leaders who understand the generation and environment in which they live.
We must nurture these leaders; elevate them when they are ready; allow them to grow in their role; learn from them; engage them; support them and, yes, sometimes respectfully challenge them.
May we merit leaders who meet the standard for excellence mentioned by Moshe, and may they merit to lead us to our ultimate destiny as a people.