Parashat Pinhas

Leading By Example

In identifying Moses' successor, God emphasizes that inspiration, not passion or popularity, makes a successful leader.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.


This week's portion continues the controversial story of Pinhas, which began at the end of last week's parasha. In a climate of rampant idolatry, Pinhas, a grandson of Aaron who is known as a great zealot, takes a spear and stabs through an Israelite Chieftain who was in the act of consorting with the daughter of a Midianite priest. At the beginning of this week's parashah, which bears his name, Pinhas is rewarded with the inheritance of the priestly line, which began with Aaron.

The portion continues with a description of Israel's struggles with the Midianites, and then a census is taken as part of the preparation for battle. As a footnote to the listing of the census, a story is told about a man named Zelophehad who died of natural causes in the wilderness without leaving a son. His daughters come to Moses to complain that their family would lose their father's property because daughters were not allowed to inherit. Moses consults with God, who agrees that the laws need to be changed. Joshua is formally appointed as Moses' successor, and the portion concludes with a review of all the sacrificial offerings of the festivals.

In Focus

Let the Eternal, God of the spirits 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 God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd (Numbers 27:16-17).


Moses has received notice from God that his death is imminent. Although previously God told Moses that he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, in this parasha God relents a bit and allows Moses to view the land from the top of Mount Abarim. But, before he ascends the mountain, Moses expresses one concern to God: Who will lead the people after I am gone?

Since he had to ask, it seems the answer is not obvious. Moses asks God to appoint someone, and God responds immediately by identifying Joshua, "who has the spirit in him," to be ordained as the new leader of the people. Moses does as God instructs. Before the entire people of Israel, Moses lays his hands on Joshua and invests him with the authority of divinely appointed leadership.


What could be on Moses’ mind as his final days draw near? Fear? Frustration? Relief? As God instructs him to ascend the Heights of Abarim for his end-of-life view of the Promised Land, Moses gives some indication of his concerns. He makes a request of God, but not on his own behalf or even for his family. What concerns Moses most at this time is the people of Israel. Who will lead this wayward people after he is gone? And so Moses prays to God: "Let the Eternal, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community..."(Numbers 27:16).

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.