Pinchas is an enigmatic character in the Torah. He is the grandson of Aharon, the son of Elazar (who became high priest after Aharon’s death). In a family of celebrities – Moshe, Aharon, Miriam, Elazar – he seems pale. But in the final sentences of last week’s parsha, Pinchas comes into his own. He takes up a spear and kills an Israelite and a Midianite who are in the sexual act, thus ending a plague that had killed 24,000 Israelites.
Today’s parsha opens with his reward: a covenant of peace and priesthood. That seems strange. Wasn’t he already a priest? According to the commentators, God promised Aharon that he and all his future children would be priests – but as Pinchas was born before the promise, he wasn’t a priest. Whatever…
The rabbis debated long and hard whether Pinchas was justified in committing murder, and the bottom line is that after the fact it can be seen as having been justified, but only just… In other words, don’t think you can resort to violence whenever you want.
Interestingly, in the book of Joshua, we have a case where the tribes west of the Jordan get hot under the collar against their brethren east of the Jordan and want to attack them for some ritual misdemeanor. Pinchas the priest (the same man?) undertakes to investigate the facts and finds that it is all a misunderstanding, and he does, indeed, avert violence and bring peace.
But the shadow of Pinchas darkens another part of the parsha. Moshe has known for a while that he won’t enter Canaan, and in this parsha he asks God to appoint someone who can go out before the people and lead them back in. In other words, someone who can attend to their needs, the needs of them all, which as we know today, is not at all an easy task.
Why does Moshe show concern about the changing of the guard now?
If we read between the lines, we can say that the rise in the status of Pinchas might make him a serious contender for the position, which is upsetting to Moshe. Moshe has two sons, about whom we have heard just a little less than nothing since they were born. Could he have expected one of them to take over, as with the priestly line? Could he have seen Pinchas as a threat to that possibility?
Let’s agree that Moshe’s sons were not in the running. We don’t even know if they stayed with Moshe. As for Pinchas, the feeling among the commentators is that Moshe does not want him at all. A person who can attend to the needs of all the people? That is not in the job description of a zealot. A zealot focuses on his aim and works towards it, without much consideration for anything else.
So for Moshe, Pinchas does not make the cut. For Moshe, the most important thing at this juncture seems to be “Just not Pinchas! Just not Pinchas!” And so when God says, “Joshua is the one” – Moshe is happy. How happy? Let’s see.
Rabbi David Menachem points out a nuance in the text. In verse 18 God tells Moshe, “Take Joshua, a man who has inspiration, and place your hand upon him” (this, by the way, is the source of “semicha” for rabbis). And in verse 23 we read, “And Moshe placed his hands upon him and invested him.” The reading of the commentators is that he was so happy for the choice of Joshua that he gave his blessing with BOTH hands!
Leading a people is a serious business, as we see in the news from the world every day. What’s interesting is Moshe’s concern for what will happen to the people when he is no longer leading them. This is perhaps the ultimate proof of Moshe’s unique leadership. He has been instrumental in shaping the masses into a nation, in holding them in line (usually), in inculcating lasting values. Yet is there anything more selfless than the attempt to ensure that a good leader is found to take over for you, after you have left the scene?
Think about it. A person wants his accomplishments and his “heritage” to be remembered. And what better way than by ensuring that your successor is much less gifted than you were? Apres moi, le deluge. That will show them how important I was!
But no. Moshe doesn’t think that way, which in a way makes him an even more legendary figure than Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaacov. And it places Pinchas in the correct perspective. Like heroes of the hour, he played an important role at a crucial moment, but that did not mean he was the right person for the long run.