Parashat Pinhas

The Limits Of Leadership

Pinhas' violent act raises questions about the extent of any leader's authority.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

In order to understand this week's portion, it is necessary to first look at the narrative that concluded the previous portion. Last week, we read the story of Balak, the King of Moab, who feared that the Children of Israel would conquer him. In defense of himself and his people, Balak recruited Balaam to place a series of curses on the Children of Israel. However, God intervened and turned the curses into blessings.

At this point, the Children of Israel were in a critical moment of transition, for Moses' leadership was drawing to a close and the mantel was about to be passed to his successor who would bring the people into the Promised Land. But despite repeated manifestations of divine protection--including the transformation of Balaam's curse into a blessing--some of the Children of Israel fell prey to the seductions of the Moabite women and participated in their religious rituals, thus betraying the covenant with God.

This was the generation that was supposed to be free of the mentality of enslavement, and was expected to experience the historic redemption of the chosen people. But tragically, when faced with uncertainty about the future, some of the people turned for reassurance to a religion that offered concrete, tangible gods. Their betrayal brought divine punishment in the form of a plague.

Even in the midst of this disaster, as people were weeping over the calamity, one of the princes of the Children of Israel defied Moses and the elders by associating with a Midianite woman. Moreover, he did so within sight of the tent of meeting where everyone had gathered. The authority of Moses and the elders was being flouted, even as they pronounced the sentence of divine retribution. Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron the priest, jumped up, grabbed a spear, and killed both the Israelite prince and the Midianite woman. His action stopped the plague and ended the crisis. Thus concluded last week's Torah portion.

This week, we open with God's response to Pinhas' action. God emphasized that Pinhas' zeal has made atonement for the Children of Israel and averted a disaster, and thus Pinhas is given a "covenant of peace."

Rabbinic commentators, however, do not find Pinhas' actions to be so completely laudable. They note that even though Pinhas did not act for self-aggrandizement or to challenge Moses' authority, he took matters into his own hands and acted in an extreme manner--certainly a potentially dangerous precedent to set.

Many commentators question how Pinhas can be rewarded at all for acting in such a summarily violent way, without conforming to the established strict procedures that severely constrain capital punishment in Jewish law. Some see the covenant of peace as a necessary antidote to calm Pinhas' zealotry. Other commentators stress that Pinhas is not made Moses' successor specifically because he does not show the qualities necessary to lead Israel into the Promised Land.

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Simha Rosenberg

Simha Rosenberg is the New York Associate Director for the New Israel Fund.