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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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Parshat Pinchas

Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 24th Tammuz 5775, 11th July 2015聽

Today’s reading offers a very interesting array of characters. We can divide them into two and a half groups: Standing alone, in group one, is Moshe, the remaining stalwart of the old brigade together with memories of his brother Aharon. In group two we have Pinchas and Joshua, the new brigade. And on the sidelines, representing the half group are the five daughters of Zelofchad who want to change the laws of inheritance. What can we learn about leadership from this coterie of real and wannabe leaders?

Let’s begin with Pinchas, the eponymous hero of this week’s parsha, an enigmatic character despite his unambiguous act of smiting the Israelite man and Moabite woman who were dancing lewdly in front of Moshe and the leaders and the holy tent last week. In return for this God grants him a covenant of peace and the priesthood forever. This non-sequitur has drawn much comment, but suffice it to say that sometimes drastic measures are necessary. This was one of them and Pinchas was rewarded for his quick response to a craven provocation.

But immediate action does not a leader make. Even if he had been a great war hero (which he wasn’t), he still would not have been more eligible for the position of leader.

The Israelites had two pillars of power. One was the official leader, who also happened to have direct access to the Highest of Highs, and then there was the high priest, who was responsible for the holy of holies, the sacrifices and attending to all matters of purity and impurity. And it appears that these two positions had to remain separate. So, Pinchas was never really in the running. But on the other hand, he does very clearly act like a precursor of and model for the judges who came later (in the Book of Judges). Like Pinchas, they saved the people in their times of backsliding from God and their suffering from outside enemies. Like Pinchas, these judges would come to the rescue, bring the people relief and renewed belief, and then ride off into the sunset until the cycle would begin again with another judge.

I want to include Aharon, even though his death was described two parshot ago, because he represents another form of leadership. Aharon was a compassionate person, one who always tried to console the people, keep them happy and serve them. He was the good cop in the Moshe-Aharon good-cop-bad-cop team. He helped to soften the sometimes hard edges of the head honcho. But this was his drawback as a leader. He cared too much, which is not bad in itself, but he let his feelings dictate his actions, which was not good 鈥 as in the case of building the golden calf. A good person, but not a leader.

Moshe is our most complex character. He basically represents the ultimate leader. He has compassion for the people but that does not deter him from upbraiding and excoriating them when necessary. When they are in danger of extinction by divine anger, Moshe’s first concern is their safety. For example, when Moshe was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights learning the Torah, and God told him that his (Moshe’s) people had left the straight and narrow, before going down to see 鈥 he first implores God not to destroy them. Only after he has extracted God’s promise does he go down, and smash the two tablets, perhaps in anger but perhaps more as a symbol of the breaking of the covenant between God and the Israelites.

Here’s another example of his uniqueness. Moshe is going to die soon. But because of his concern for the people, he wants to appoint a replacement, one who will lead the people so that do not become a flock without a shepherd. 聽Even in the face of his own death, Moshe is first concerned about what will happen to the people.

So why Joshua? We know that he is a fighter 鈥 he led the first battle against Amalek soon after the exodus from Egypt, he spoke out in favor of entering the land, and we know that he was devoted to Moshe. Is that enough? It will be, we are told, because the spirit is upon him and Moshe will imbue him with some of his own glory, and he will consult with the high priest. That’s not really a great recommendation for a leader. Listen, boychik, you served me well so I’ll give the whole business over to you. But again, it was not Moshe’s choice.

And finally we have the daughters of Zelofchad who are worried that their father’s estate will be swallowed up by the tribes they marry into (because he had no sons). 聽This story has often been cited as the first blow for women’s rights. And it probably is. But it is more than that. It is an indication that the laws we have, sometimes need refinement and redefinition to suit new or unexpected circumstances. God’s answer to Moshe’s query is emphatic. The daughters of Zelofchad speak the truth! They are right! We must make amendments and refinements to the laws. And this is what makes the story more important than only gender related rights.

So what do we learn from this very short review? We learn that not all leaders are equal. We learn that honest, bone-deep concern for the people must be one of the qualities of a good leader. But we also learn that compassion alone is not enough, that strictness alone is not enough. And finally, we learn that laws, even from the highest source, may not always be perfect and that efforts must be made to correct unfair laws so that our lives can be made better.

I won’t even mention the Knesset or our government.

Shabbat Shalom


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