The Sensitivity to Lead

Pinehas By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 10, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

From the paean of Balaam, we plummet to the apostasy at Shittim. The inconstancy of the real world quickly obscures the glimpse of perfection. The daughters of Moab, a tribe born of incest (Genesis 19:30-38), literally seduces the men of Israel into an orgy of idolatry. Enraged, God orders Moses to slay all those who have worshipped at the shrine of Baal-peor. But before Moses can mobilize his leadership, an Israelite male comes out of nowhere to fuel the rebellion by publicly taking a Medianite consort into a marriage chamber. In a burst of zeal, Pinhas, a young priest and Aaron’s grandson, runs them both through with a single thrust of his spear. The vigilante execution ends the plague that had already taken some 24,000 victims.

Subsequently, we are informed by the Torah of the true gravity of the incident: the perpetrators came from the leadership elites of Israel and Midian. Zimri, son of Salu was a leader from the tribe of Simeon. Similarly, his consort, Kozbi, the daughter of Zur, hailed from the household of a tribal chieftain. The intermingling started at the top.

The midrash relates the census that follows to the loss of life that preceded. A shepherd whose flock has been ravaged by wolves will always take account of what’s left (Rashi on 21:1). Interestingly, the greatest deviation from the census taken thirty-eight years earlier, at the beginning of the trek into the wilderness, shows up in the numbers for the tribe of Simeon. Its population has decreased by 37,100 souls, a drop that far exceeds that of any other tribe. A midrash found in the Cairo Genizah links this depletion to the fact that Zimri belonged to the tribe of Simeon. It suffered grievously for the heinous sin of one of its top leaders. Indeed, claims the midrash, all but 2,000 of the 24,000 Israelites who perished from the plague were Simeonites.

In an ingenious display of intertextuality, the midrash contrasts the depravity of Zimri with the nobility of his distant ancestor, Simeon, the second son of Jacob, the patriarch. Simeon, along with his brother, Levi, had slaughtered some 22,000 inhabitants of the city-state of Shechem after one of its chieftains had kidnapped and raped and then wished to marry their sister, Dinah (Genesis 34). Yet, the very crime that had repelled them was precisely what tempted Zimri. He had betrayed his patrimony. Promiscuity and harlotry were loathsome whether practiced by a Canaanite or an Israelite. Hence, the toll of 22,000 exacted in retribution from the tribe of Simeon (Torah Shlemah on Numbers 26:14, no.32).

The math may be a little off, since Simeon’s numbers fell by 37,100. Nor does the book of Genesis give any figure for those killed by Simeon and Levi at Schechem. Still, the underlying principle is clear: “Zimri had breached the fence erected by his ancestor. In blemishing himself he brought disgrace on his whole clan,” (B’midbar Rabbah 21:3).

By connecting the dots of a fragmented narrative, the midrashic mind raised to consciousness the role of leadership in the fate of a community. The erosion in the status of the tribe of Simeon was not accidental. Those who succumbed to the wiles of the women of Moab and Midian came primarily from Simeon. The tribe suffered from abysmal leadership. The brazen act of defiance by Zimri should not be seen in isolation, but as typical of the leadership elite. His zeal was destructive because it was misguided.

The zeal of Pinhas, however was not. He remained faithful to the values of his ancestor, the progenitor of the tribe of Levi. He refused to countenance what his father abhorred. At Baal-peor the descendants of Simeon and Levi parted company. Their zeal clashed head-on. In consequence, God rewarded Pinhas and his progeny with the privileged status of priest for all time, while dooming the tribe of Simeon to oblivion. In Moses’ farewell blessing to Israel, Simeon is the only tribe to go unmentioned (Deuteronomy 33). And, by the partition of Canaan under Joshua, the land apportioned to Simeon is but a part of the domain of Judah (Joshua 19:1).

Against this backdrop of failed leadership, the insistence by Moses before his death that God replace him with a suitable leader “so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” resonates with poignancy (27:17). The exchange yields at least a partial vision of what constitutes good leadership. Strikingly, Moses does not ask God to appoint one of his two sons. Perhaps he sensed that neither was qualified (see Judges 18:30, which the Talmud treats as idolatry – Bava Batra 109b). The welfare of Israel takes precedence over the welfare of his family. At this critical juncture, Moses does not allow personal gain to cloud his judgment. Heredity offers no guarantee of competence.

Rashi deepens the epithet by which Moses addresses God: “Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community (27:16).” The Hebrew word for breath is in the plural ha-ruhot,suggesting that God select a leader who is God-like, that is, capable of understanding and accommodating the spirit (ha-ruah) of each and every person under his care. A leader ought to be endowed with a large dose of sensitivity, tact and compassion. To lead means to cajole, not to coerce.

God responds by instructing Moses to install Joshua, “an inspired man” (ish asher ruah bo-27:18). This time, the Hebrew term ruah, is in the singular. The shift adds an important nuance. Leaders must couple spiritual resolve with emotional magnanimity. All will be confronted with crises when they will have to face down and not give in. Sensitivity without conviction is ultimately an abdication of leadership. Zimri, for all his vaunted status, may well have followed rather than led, taking his cue from the direction in which the mob chose to go and then positioning himself at its helm. Bereft of a center of gravity, a leader will be buffeted by gusts of passion from many quarters. In short, a genuine leader should be both inner- and outer-directed, firm yet responsive, compassionate yet courageous. And, to know when to be which, is the essence of good judgment.

Shabbat shalom, 

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Pinhas are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.