Extremes of Leadership
The Torah is a book of contrasts, of frequent and even wild swings between extremes — extremes of points of view and extremes of behavior. For a quick shift between extremes of points of view, one need look no farther than the opening words of Genesis. We see at first nothing but darkness. We hear the words, “Let there be light”, and soon, light is over all.
Extremes of behavior appear among the nation as a whole and among individuals. The Israelites leave Egypt. At first they sing God¹s praises and place their reliance on God and Moses. Yet, soon, their harmonious songs turn to dissonant complaints. They have left Egypt, the land of darkness, yet keep asking to return. They have left the gods of Egypt, yet keep looking for a god that is not theirs.
Individual leaders react differently to the challenges their people throw in front of them. Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, gives his name to this week¹s parasha, yet the deed that made him famous was in last week’s — he kills an Israelite chief who is found with a Midianite woman. The Sages explain that this was not just a case of attachment to a foreign woman; but, an attachment to the foreign worship she represented — and, thus, treason against the true God.
Pinhas represents an extreme in the exercise of leadership — the use of sudden violence to wipe out a growing threat. In this week’s parasha, however, a different model of leadership is presented. It is a leader who concentrates on cutting off what is bad but tending to what is good; a leader who works to connect with all the people rather than isolating the troublesome elements.
God has previously told Moses that he will not enter the promised land. When God now repeats this message (while telling Moses to go up on mountain to have a look at where he cannot go), Moses responds by raising the issue of succession.
“Then Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, designate a man over the community who will go out before them, who will come back before them, who will lead them out, who will bring them back; so that the community of the Lord will not be like a flock that has no shepherd. The Lord said to Moses: Take yourself Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom the spirit is, and lean your hand upon him.” (Numbers 27: 15—20)
A midrash imagines some additional words that Moses conveyed to God, saying, “Master of the Universe, You know the minds of each person, and they are all different. Choose a leader who can bear each one according to his own mind. Let this leader be not a general who sits in his chair, but one who goes out in front.” God replied, “I shall choose someone who is suitable for the mind of each person.”
This midrash lays out a certain type of leadership that directly contrasts with that of Pinhas. (Rashi, based on Midrash Tanhuma and Sifri) Joshua must be able to bear with, and even suffer from, the many types of people who are in his nation. Yet this type of leadership is not weak or passive. To the contrary, it is forward—looking and forward acting. Bearing with each person, knowing each person’s mind, and going out in front are all part of the same package. Pinhas, after his one famous episode, plays very little part in the future story of the Israelites. His example is not forgotten. His zealousness reappears in his spiritual descendants, especially Elijah. The designated leadership, however, passes to Joshua. The rest of the Bible is the story of Joshua and those to whom he passed his mantle. They did not always — in fact, rarely — live up to principles laid down for Joshua. But the principles were there.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.