Two Leaders, Two Styles of Leadership

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish

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Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families 
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, 
whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz. Yehi zikhro barukh.
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The Rise of Yehoshua

Our parasha records the rise of two great new leaders who are fundamentally different from one another in terms of their personality, as well as in the way they achieve their status.

The Torah describes the appointment of Yehoshua:

And the Lord said to Moshe: Take to yourself Yehoshua, son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hand upon him, and set him before Elazar the kohen and before all the congregation, and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall bestow some of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael may be obedient. And he shall stand before Elazar the kohen, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all of Bnei Yisrael with him, even all the congregation. And Moshe did as the Lord commanded him, and he took Yehoshua, and set him before Elazar the kohen and before all the congregation, and he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord commanded by the hand of Moshe. (Bamidbar 27:18-23)

Yehoshua is of the same generation as Moshe – the older generation that came out of Egypt. Yehoshua, of whom the Torah says, “… but his servant, Yehoshua, son of Nun, a young man, did not depart out of the Tent” (Shemot 33:11), follows the same career path as a Chief of Staff in our days. He starts out as a rookie who runs from one task to the next, following orders; afterwards he advances gradually through the ranks, eventually reaching the top. He progresses slowly but surely, through conscientious effort, until finally he succeeds Moshe as leader of the nation.

The Rise of Pinchas

Pinchas belongs to the younger generations, and he is wholly animated by the spirit of God. Pinchas becomes a leader by taking action within a set of sudden and dramatic circumstances. He does not climb the leadership ladder rung by rung, like Yehoshua, but rather achieves instantaneous fame owing to his special deed:

And behold, one of Bnei Yisrael came and brought to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moshe, and in the sight of all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael, who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting. And when Pinchas, son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the kohen, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation and took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel, into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly, so the plague was halted from Bnei Yisrael. (Bamidbar 25:6-8)

Pinchas observes the abomination that is being perpetrated in the camp of Israel and the absence of any authoritative response. Moshe and Aharon stand on the sidelines, not knowing what to do. The gemara fills in some of the missing information as to what is going on at that moment:

He seized her by her hair and brought her to Moshe. He said to him, “Son of Amram! Is this woman forbidden or permitted [to me]? If you say she is forbidden – who permitted you to marry the daughter of Yitro?” [Moshe] could not recall the halakha, and everyone moaned and wept; this is as it is written, “who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting.” And it is written, “And Pinchas, son of Elazar, saw” – what did he see?

Rav said: He saw the act, and remembered the halakha. He said to him [Moshe], “Great-uncle, this is what you taught me when you came down from Mount Sinai: One who engages in intercourse with a non-Jewish woman is punished by zealots!” He said to him, “He who reads the letter – let him be the agent [to carry out its instructions].” (Sanhedrin 82a)

The midrash describes Moshe as being involved in the event, but the verses portray him and Aharon as standing by helplessly.

The Dispute Between Pinchas and Zimri

Josephus describes a dialogue between Moshe and Zimri at that time. Zimri tells Moshe that his role as leader is finished; his leadership was necessary for the period of the desert, but now that Am Yisrael will be entering the land, where every man will have his own inheritance, there should now be freedom of conscience and a liberal approach that allows the individual to make his own choices. Moshe’s role is over, and so he should not interfere in what is happening with the daughters of Midian; this is no longer his responsibility or his business.

Moshe is struck dumb by this argument, not knowing how to react. His disciplined, organized leadership cannot deal with a breach of this order.

Pinchas observes all of this and understands that the appropriate response will not be forthcoming from Moshe and Aharon, the elders of the congregation. In a burst of zealousness, he avenges the honor of God and of the camp of Israel, killing Zimri and the Midianite woman.

Zimri, prince of the tribe of Shimon, did not understand the significance of the entry into the land and its inheritance. He and the people of his tribe thought that the national unity of Israel would no longer have any place; from this point onwards, it would be “each to his own.”

Zimri was wrong, and Pinchas had to demonstrate this. The tribe of Shimon was also punished by not inheriting their own portion, since they did not understand the significance of inheriting and settling the land.

Two Types of Leadership

In the wake of his deed, Pinchas becomes a leader in Israel. He does not lead “by the book,” like Moshe and like Yehoshua. In contrast to them, at the critical moment, he had the ability and the insight to perform an extraordinary act, to prevent the nation from disintegrating. Pinchas’s leadership epitomizes the teaching, “In a place where there are no men, try to be a man.”

Both types of leadership are necessary for the nation’s existence. There must be a regular, organized, reasoned leadership that is attained with sustained effort over a long period, and there is sudden, momentary leadership that responds to problems that the regular leadership is sometime unable to deal with.

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Pinchas 5774 [2014].)