Shabbat candles: 8:13 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 25:10-30:1
Haftarah: I Kings 18:46-19:23
Parshat Pinhas provides us with two contrasting styles of leadership, that of Pinhas and that of Moses.
Much has been made of the fact that Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson, appears to be rewarded for his zealotry — stabbing Cozbi and Zimri for their public display of immorality and idolatry. The Torah tells us that Pinhas receives “a covenant of peace,” or pact of Divine friendship [Numbers 25:12], and a “pact of everlasting priesthood,” with the role of Kohen Gadol, High Priest, to remain in his family [Num. 25:13]. However, a number of sources see this bestowal of attributes on Pinhas not as a reward but corrective.
The Talmud calls this “pact of friendship,” an “atonement” [Sanhedrin 82b] rather than an accolade. Pinhas’ actions are his own; in modern parlance he is the lone wolf gunman, not a leader of a movement. He stops to consider the feelings of no one but himself. This seems to be why the blessings bestowed on Pinhas are those that are restorative, enabling him to connect to others, through friendship and the priesthood.
Moses is a very different kind of leader, one who thinks about the needs of the people, as well as his own. This means that his decisions and actions aren’t done impulsively. Moses is a leader concerned with interacting both with God and the people. When God tells him, again, that his punishment will be death prior to entering the Land [Num. 27:12-14], Moses’ concern is that the people should not be “like sheep who are without a shepherd” [Num. 27:17]. The mutuality of this image, the concern of the shepherd watching over the sheep, knowing and caring for each individually, is what makes this line so poignant. Moses will die, his task of seeing the people into the Land, unfulfilled. And yet, his concern is like a shepherd’s, for the ongoing well-being of his people.
Appealing to God not to leave the people leaderless, the attribute of God that Moses summons is God as “elohei ruhot,” the “source of the breath of all flesh” [Num. 27:16]. This epithet, according to Rashi and Bamidbar Rabbah, means that God is aware of the individual temperaments of each person, able to deal with each one in accordance with the spirit of that person’s particular temperament.
A leader must be capable of acting in accordance with individual needs as well as group needs. Moses’ leadership and the spirit of humility and collaboration he brings to it, his willingness to see himself not as a lone wolf making all necessary decisions, but a shepherd sensitive to his sheep, a nursing parent [Num. 11:12], and an emissary of a Divine Being who is attuned to individual temperaments.
It is in Moses’ need for collaborative decisions, alongside God, and consultation, that his leadership gains its luster. There are four situations where Moses is unsure of the outcome and must wait for a Divine decision: the case of blasphemer [Leviticus 24:10-23]; the case of the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath [Num. 15:32-36]; the question of those impure for the paschal offering [Num. 9:6-14], and now, a fourth case — the case of Zelophehad’s daughters [Num. 27:1-11] — where Moses is unable to act without Divine input.
The daughters of Zelophehad ask whether, despite the inability of women to inherit property, an exception might be made when a father is survived by only daughters. Moses, instead of answering on his own, brings their case before God. Had Pinhas been in charge, one imagines the women might have been driven out of the courtroom, criticized for even raising the issue. However, Moses remains the most humble man [Num. 12: 3] he has been and realizes that he does not have all the answers — unlike Pinhas.
Justice is served and God finds a way for the daughters to continue their fathers’ line, as well for the inheritance law to be upheld. The daughters of Zelophehad will be placeholders for the land. They cannot possess it, but they may retain it and pass it to their sons, so long as they remain in the family.
This parsha, which begins with the solitary and zealous judgments of Pinhas, moves on to one in which we see the model for an enduring leadership: Moses is able to pass along his “hod” — his spiritual greatness — to a successor, Joshua [Num. 27:18-27], because Moses is a leader who does not act completely alone, particularly after Jethro prompted him [Exodus 18:18-21] to create a system of lieutenants. Though Pinhas seems to be rewarded with a “brit shalom,” a pact of friendship, we see that to truly emulate God we need leaders more attuned with a cautious, collaborative and careful leadership style, like that of Moses.
Beth Kissileff is a visiting assistant professor of Jewish studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.