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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Who could possibly be a worthy successor to Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher)? Surely the search process would be long. Bring in the headhunters! But the Kotzker Rebbe taught that the answer was obvious: Pinhas, the zealot whose name titles this week's Torah portion. Having just demonstrated his unflinching fidelity to God and qualities of leadership through his single-handed efforts to purge the idolaters from Israel’s midst, he seemed the natural choice. He was rewarded by God and adored by the people. What other choice could there be?

But Moses, after years of leadership experience, realized that the exact characteristics that made Pinhas popular were not the right traits for a good leader. Pinhas was a man who, in a moment of crises, took the law into his own hands. He was certainly decisive, but acted in a rash and extreme manner. Even though his deed may have served to assuage God’s wrath against the people and earned him God’s favor, it was not enough to sustain the people on a day to day basis.

Moses himself was never a zealot. His successes as a leader came through consistency of vision and skills of communication and negotiation. He lived his life as a dugma ishit, as a role model of human decency. Moses never pushed people; rather, he led them along. And so Moses’ appeal to God continues, outlining those skills important in a good leader, "...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."

In response to Moses’s appeal, God identified Joshua Bin Nun as the one to serve as the new leader of Israel. Joshua was not a zealot, but rather, "a man of inspiration"--he had the spirit of God in him. Joshua may not have been the obvious choice; he may not have even been well liked by the people. But with God’s imprimatur, he was the right man for the job.

Davar Aher

Moses asks God to choose a leader over Israel to lead them after his death. Moses saw that God had commanded that Zelophehad's inheritance had been given to his daughters, and he thought: "Now is the time for me to ask God to give my leadership as an inheritance to my children, so that they may lead Israel as I have led them." But God replied: "This is not My decision. Rather, Joshua, who served you faithfully, did not leave your tent, and learned all the Torah, shall inherit your leadership and shall lead Israel into the Land of Israel (Tz'enah Ur'enah).

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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.