Pinchas: When the head is unworthy, the people are punished

Peace_Parsha_Logo185Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, LCSW serves as Rabbinic Director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City, working with individuals who are ill,  bereaved, or survivors of trauma, through Jewish spiritual counseling, support groups, workshops and printed materials.  He has been deeply involved in human rights advocacy, Jewish-Muslim relations, interfaith exchanges, and the nexus of spiritual resources and mental health for over thirty years.


This week’s  Torah portion is named for a man –Pinhas-  who represents both heroism and horror in our tradition. It is, to say the least, complicated in terms of role models for leadership. In contrast, Moshe,  recognized as the greatest of the Jewish people’s leaders, and who in this week’s portion is engaged in the search for his impending replacement,  ‘advises’ the Almighty regarding his successor and in so doing, offers a prescription for a good leader. 

And Moshe spoke to God, saying, Let the God of the spirits of all flesh set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of God be not as sheep that have no shepherd. (Numbers 27:15-17)

Moshe’s counsel as set out in these three verses and elucidated by a number of Torah commentaries, points to the leadership challenges the state of Israel faces at present, with a current leadership that has  failed to take the actions that would result in the much desired goal of security and peace for Israel, and for the Palestinians as well.

In his terse request, we can find three characteristics of a good leader – and an implicit warning:

First, the medieval commentator Rashi notes that Moshe’s form of address to God is “the God of the spirits of all flesh” and asks, why is this expression used? (Why not simply “God of all flesh,” as elsewhere?)” His answer: Because “The dispositions of everyone are manifest to You, and You know that these are not similar one to the other.  Appoint a leader for them who will bear with each person according to his disposition…” In other words, a leader needs to put himself or herself in the shoes of the other; to understand multiple histories and diverse narratives and to navigate as a diplomat, orchestrating the diverse spirits of all constituents.

Second, the midrashic work Sifre states, “…Moshe exemplified the merit of the righteous who at the time of their death do not concern themselves with their personal deeds but with the needs of the community…” (Sifre Numbers 138).  Leaders must put the needs of the people – life, freedom, justice, health, peace – ahead of their personal careers.  It is not enough to be in power. The power of leadership must be put towards righteous goals.

Third, the verse speaks of a leader “who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in.” Once again, we turn to the great commentator Rashi, who explains that this leadership is “through his merits.” It is through their particular personal and professional merits that leaders are able to take people out of their comfort zones and reassure them, to try new things while unifying the nation. More than ever, the generous spirit of Moshe, our first leader, is required of our leaders now, to facilitate movement towards peace and beyond peace -- to reconciliation and rebuilding.

Finally, the Zohar offers this warning through an explanation of the language of sheep that have no shepherd: “Rabbi Jose said ‘I was reflecting that the condition of mankind depends entirely on their leaders: when these are worthy, the world and all in it prosper, but when they are unworthy, woe to the world and woe to the people!’ Said Rabbi Hiyya: ‘Indeed you speak the truth, for it is written,  “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills as sheep that have not a shepherd,” and God said, “These have no master; let them return every man to his house in peace.”’ … The explanation is that, as we have been taught, when the head (in this case, the ruler of Israel) is unworthy, the people are punished for his guilt.”   -- Zohar, Sh’mot, Section II, 36b

The Zohar is underscoring the profoundly destabilizing influence of an unworthy leader.  For both Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, it is the people who suffer when the leaders are unworthy, lacking in sustaining vision, unable to guide, and hamstrung by extremism.

We would do well to reflect on Moshe’s words in Numbers 27 – as we American Jews choose our leaders and when Israelis elect their own.  The various dimensions of his dialogue about succession with God – the ability to understand the experience of others, putting communal needs ahead of personal ones, maintaining a generous spirit, valuing both personal and professional merits, compassionate and active shepherding, and the realization that the peoples of the region are all suffering – these are what mattered before entering the land, and they certainly should be priorities today.  Just as Moshe did not hesitate to 'advise' the Almighty regarding his successor, so today those who can understand the mindset and fears, as well as the genuine challenges before Israel, need to speak out against the dark path Israel is walking, to make sure that our leaders support real solutions, and work for them, not simply mouth what the community of nations wishes to hear about two-state solutions while appointing leaders who do not support that end, and indeed undermine it.