Real Leadership

Commentary on Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1)

Leaders lead. So goes the truism. But how? In what manner and style? That turns out to be the truly big question.

In the vast literature on the theme of leadership, Parshat Pinchas holds a special place of honor. After three weeks of Torah portions recounting challenges to Moses and angry responses by God to those challenges, Pinchas serves up two distinct visions of leadership, and two sharply divergent paradigms of proper behavior on the part of a leader. Version 1 features Pinchas himself, a member of the first family of Israelite priests, Aaron’s grandson. Version 2 showcases Moses and Joshua, the political, educational, prophetic, and sometime priestly leader of the people and his successor. The pictures couldn’t be more different.

Let’s start with Pinchas. Facing a plague ravaging the people, itself a Divine response to a collective act of disloyalty and infidelity, Pinchas takes matters into his own hands:

When Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this (an Israelite man and a Moabite woman together at the Tent of Meeting), he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. (Numbers 25:7-8)

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His decisive act yields up God’s pact of friendship (brit shalom) and a promise of priesthood for all time (brit kehunat ‘olam). God lauds Pinchas’ passion and zeal in so many words (b’kano et kinati b’tokham). The Pinchas model of leadership, at least in the Torah’s unfiltered version, highlights quick and firm action and prioritizes forceful commitment and dedication to a larger cause. A number of midrashim point out the similarity between Pinchas and another biblical firebrand, Elijah the Prophet. Both are unyielding protectors and defenders of the God of Israel. Both act largely alone. And both go in for large dramatic gestures. It makes for thrilling reading, and must have been exhilarating and compelling to observe.

The rabbinic tradition undermines the Pinchas model in a remarkable way, one hinted at by the other leadership paradigm in our Torah portion, that of Moses and Joshua. A conversation preserved in the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:6) suggests that were it not for God’s reward of eternal priesthood to Pinchas and his descendants, the Sages would have excommunicated him! The Jerusalem Talmud doesn’t define the rabbis’ precise objection to Pinchas’s actions. They concede that he acts in accord with the Torah’s law prohibiting sexual relations between an Israelite man and a Moabite woman. And still, they declare, shelo b’ratzon hahamim — it did not accord with the desire of the Sages. To the rabbinic mind, it seems, bad (or nonexistent) process makes for bad leadership even if the outcome is correct.

Which leads nicely to the Moses and Joshua paradigm that sits at the very center of this week’s portion. The question of succession is on Moses’ mind. “Let the Lord, Source of the breath 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 the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-17)

God responds by indicating that Joshua is such a leader, and instructs Moses to “invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.” (Numbers 27:20) The imagery is lovely. The leader goes out before and comes in before the people, serving them in the way that a shepherd cares for and tends to her sheep.

The earliest midrashim build on that imagery to paint a beautiful picture of proper, even holy, leadership. The key quality is the ability “to stand up to the spirit/temperament of each and every one,” to “walk with the demanding according to their temperament and with the moderate according to their temperament.” (Sifre Zuta and Sifre #140) A leader connects with each and every one on that individual’s terms. That’s the radical takeaway. And the later tradition pushes this paradigm even farther. R Avraham Dov of Avritch, a late 18th/early 19th-century Hasidic master, adds that a leader’s job is to “know the souls of each and every one, and know the service that pertains to that soul, and to draw them near and connect them to their root-source.”

By placing the Moses and Joshua paradigm at the center of a portion named for Pinchas, our tradition takes sides in the great debate over leadership. God’s people are to be served and led by individuals who honor and respect each member of the tribe, who consult and confer, and who seek to raise up those around them for the benefit of all. Our ancestors deserved, and often got, that kind of leadership. We deserve it as well.

Rabbi David Ackerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, PA where he teaches Torah, plays guitar, and works with others to build up a sacred community rich in learning, spirituality and kindness. Educated at Princeton University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he has served as assistant rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, rabbi at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, PA, and as rabbi for national outreach at JTS.