Parshat Pinchas: Leading a Desert Generation

Rabbi Yehuda Shtauber is Ohr Torah Stone’s Vice President of Education 

Historically, two main approaches to defining suitable leaders have appeared in the study of leadership in the Western world. One approach suggests that a leader is a celebrated individual with personality traits that set him or her apart from the rest of the nation.  The fundamental premise behind this approach is that there are universally shared, optimal character traits independent of the time in which the leaders were active or of the events that shaped them into suitable leaders.

Scholars attempted to locate these character traits in various leaders, to no avail, and anyone who wished to define leaders based on these attributes would end up disappointed.  Another scholarly approach came into being, with a definition of suitable leaders based on the leader’s characteristics and how they are manifested in light of the reality in which they assumed their leadership (as opposed to leadership based on “fixed basic characteristics”). According to this view, the criteria used to assess whether people are suitable leaders must include the cultural zeitgeist and the events that transpired when they were at the helm. Moreover, it has become virtually impossible to compare between leaders who had lived at different times and had faced very different realities.

In Parashat Chukat, after Moses and Aaron sinned in the Mei Merivah affair, Hashem punished them, preventing them from leading the Jewish people into their land. The Shadal (Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto) writes the following regarding the nature of their sin:

Moshe Rabbenu committed one sin, and the commentators heaped on him thirteen more sins, for each of them came up with a new one… thus all my life I restrained myself from investigating the matter, fearing that a new interpretation may emerge from the investigation, when I, too, will have added a new sin on Moshe Rabbenu”.

In light of this vagueness with regard to their sin, we’ll try to propose another explanation for why Moses and Aaron did not merit to enter the land of Israel. It would be appropriate to look into what the roots of their sin were. It would seem that at that time, Israelite complaints were a well-known and everyday occurence. What, then, would have driven Moses and Aaron to react so harshly? Why did they feel so desparate, and why did they want to run away from their own people?

We might be able to find the answer to that question by looking into the identity of the complainers, instead of examining the content of the complaint. This event occurred on the fortieth year after the Israelites left Egypt. The generation that witnessed it was not made up of those who left Egypt, who had died after the sin of the spies; it was their children’s generation. Moses acted rather forgivingly toward their parents’ generation, who had a “slave mentality”, but he placed much higher hopes on the change he would manage to bring about in the next generation, which was about to face complex challenges. Yet here, during an episode reflecting one of the first times they needed to face hardships, the children’s generation exhibited weakness. In the eyes of Moses and Aaron, the nation has reverted to its original “slave-like” nature. It was a new generation, yet it used the same mantras and voiced the same complaints as their parents did. This left Aaron and Moses feeling very bitter.

Later in the parsha, a dramatic turn of events occurs as the nation suprisingly changes for the better. It takes responsibility for its war against the Canaanites, without involving Moses (the text emphasizes this with the words “and Israel swore an oath… and Hashem heeded Israel’s call”). Later, the Israelites even chant a song of praise, at their own initiative (“And then Israel sang”, in contrast with the well-known Song of the Sea, which begins with Moses leading the way: “Then Moses sang…”). Ultimately, when the Israelites tried to coordinate their passage through the lands of the Amorites, and later fought them after their appeal was rejected, Moses completely “vanished” from the scene. The Israelites themselves dispatched emissaries to negotiate with Sihon (in contrast to the emissaries to the king of Edom, who were dispatched by Moses).

It is now crystal-clear that a dramatic change is underway. The Israelites are taking responsibillty for their situation, and contending with difficult challenges, while Moses, their leader, remains minimally involved.

What caused this about-face in the nation’s behavior? To answer that question, we need to review the sequence of events. Notably, the change had occurred immediately after Aaron’s death. The people seemed to be going through an accelerated process of maturation. It was precisely this feeling of “orphanhood” after the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, coupled with Moses’ impending death, that caused the Israelites to internalize that there was no leader who would face upcoming challenges or take responsibility on their behalf, or in their stead.

If we revisit the reason that Moses did not enter the land of Israel, in light of the events discussed here, we’ll realize that it may bit a bit more involved than we originally thought. Moses’ behavior was intense and formidable, and it essentially deprived the nation of the ability to produce their own forces and develop a capacity to face hardship by taking responsibility for the situation.

The kind of leadership best-suited to a populace that had left Egypt and maintained a slave-like mindset isn’t what was needed to face a new reality and the emerging challenges at the entrance to the land. Perhaps, in this new reality that the nation was about to encounter, a less intense and more inclusive leadership was in order, one that could produce a vast network of local leaders.

The need for a shift in the leadership paradigm emerges in our Parsha, Parshat Pinchas, as reflected in the appointment of Moses’ successor. Moses wanted a leader that could fill his enormous shoes, one who would continue treating the Israelites as a hapless flock of sheep needing a leader to do everything for them: “Let Hashem, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community. Who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that Hashem’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”

Hashem’s response to Moses was complicated. On the one hand, He heeds Moses’ call to appoint a leader: “and Moses spoke unto Hashem, saying”! On the other hand, Hashem was telling him that a new type of leadership was needed.

Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him… But he shall present himself to Eleazar the priest, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before Hashem. By such instruction they shall go out and by such instruction they shall come in, he and all the Israelites, the whole community.(Numbers 27:18-21)

Before his death, Moses asked that a suitable leader be appointed, one who would act as he did. On one side, an absolute leader, and on the other, a nation being led. Hashem’s answer to Moses was that leadership needed to evolve along with the changing reality. The new leader would need to evolve, and the rest of the nation would need to evolve with him.  It was high time for the people to face up to its responsibilities.

Indeed, the impact of this joint leadership is easily noticeable during Joshua’s term as leader of the Israelites, and it’s clear to us how relevant that leadership was for that time. The Israelites never pinned the blame on Joshua when they complained. Even when referring to serious incidents, such as the affair of the Gibeonites, the nation complained about its chieftains. This joint leadership moderated the criticism levelled at the “chief”.

Though many passages in the biblical text imply that the reason that Moses did not enter the land of Israel was that he had sinned at Mei Merivah, this explanation suggests that there may have been another reason, one that has nothing to do with any particular sin that Moses had committed. This is hinted at in Moses’ last supplication to Hashem to enter the land of Israel, in Parshat Va’etchanan. Hashem’s response leads to the understanding that perhaps, Moses’ sin could be forgiven. However, there was another reason Moses would not be allowed in.

“But Hashem was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me.”

The reason wasn’t just that a sin was committed.  The decision was made on account of the Jewish people. It was for their own good. The people needed new leadership. New leadership forces needed to be produced from within the nation, so that it could cope with the ever-changing and complex reality of the land of Israel. What was needed was a leader who, as he led, involved others who would stand together and face a new challenge, both physical and spiritual, in their new life in the land of Israel.


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