Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1)
Rabbi David Stav
Who was Pinchas, and how did he merit to have this portion named after him?
At the end of the previous portion, the Torah tells us that the People of Israel had illicit relations with Midianite and Moabite women. God punished the nation with a terrible epidemic, which claimed the lives of twenty-four thousand people. Even some of the tribal heads had been involved in the terrible deeds that brought about the epidemic. Finally, Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon the priest, took matters into his own hands and struck down the prince of the tribe of Shimon, bringing this epidemic to a halt.
Our portion begins with God’s words to Moshe that Pinchas will merit on account of his actions. God promises Pinchas and his descendants “a covenant of eternal priesthood” (Bamidbar / Numbers 25:13). For Pinchas, the icing on the cake is God’s “covenant of peace” (ibid., 25:12).
However, a short time later, when the text relates how Moshe asked God to appoint a successor, God does not choose Pinchas for the job. Instead, he tells Moshe to do the following:
“Take for yourself Yehoshua the son of Nun, a man in whom there is a spirit…”
This appointment seems curious. We had already heard Yehoshua described as a “young man who did not step outside of Moshe’s tent” (Shemot / Exodus 33:11), but is he really the one who could shoulder the heavy burden of leading the People of Israel into the Land of Israel? Wouldn’t it have been preferable to appoint someone like Pinchas, a man with courage and proven experience?
We learn from this that political / military leadership is much more complex than the priesthood. To succeed, leaders need far more than courage and zealousness. Pinchas had many merits, but to lead the nation, one would need to “act in a manner befitting the personality of each individual” (Rashi’s commentary on Bamidbar 27:18). Rashi called this an ability “to tolerate each individual according to his personality” (ibid.).
Zealous leaders tend to view certain elements of the world around them in extreme terms. This justifiably agitates them, and they spare no efforts in their quest to neutralize them. No one can predict how these battles will turn out. Moreover, there may be certain issues that these zealots consider critical for our future, even when said issues may not justify extreme measures.
In contrast, a responsible and tempered leader who wishes to guide his entire flock must rack his brain and make every possible effort to craft positions and devise strategies that take all of the possibilities and requirements of Jewish society into consideration. He then must assess the decisions to be made at the specific time at which they are required.
These may seem like “mission impossible.” How could anyone “tolerate all of the opinions of others”, when people say different things that might even be diametrically opposed, and demand that their leader act completely differently than he does?
As a case in point, consider the polemics that have engulfed Israel in the past few decades. What is a leader supposed to do when he knows that some powerful people are opposed to a particular law in any shape or form, while many others adamantly insist that it passes? Keeping in mind that there are both secular and religious societies in the country, what should a leader do? Are all of the models of coexistence doomed to fail?
The answer to these questions lies in the verse “a man in whom there is a spirit”. Are a leader’s actions guided by his deeply-held convictions, or will his decisions be dictated by his state of mind?
If a leader’s actions stem from a profound and all-encompassing spiritual strength, and if the leader is capable of listening to each and every individual and tolerating their ideas, he will be held in high esteem, even if he does something that could be construed as antithetical to the values of certain groups of people in his society. If a leader can communicate with his people on a spiritual level, he will find that disputes will not tear apart the nation. Rather, they will enrich it and contribute to the growth of all of its members.
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