Parashat Pinhas: Personal hope versus national hope

A true leader puts the nation’s needs ahead of his own and the nation’s hopes ahead of his personal ones.

July 6, 2018 10:14
3 minute read.
A shepherd keeps watch over his grazing sheep in the Romanian mountain

A shepherd keeps watch over his grazing sheep in the Romanian mountain. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinhas, we read about the Jewish nation camping in the plains of Moab at the entrance to the Land of Israel, preparing to enter the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. The nation’s leaders, Moses and Eleazar, the son of Aaron, who was appointed to the priesthood after his father’s death, were commanded to take a census and count the members of the nation in preparation for dividing the land among the Twelve Tribes.

Immediately after the census, we read the following verses:

The Lord said to Moses, “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was gathered” (Numbers 27, 12-13).

Moses is receiving the worst news a person could get: The time has arrived for you to die and you should make the proper arrangements. What bothers Moses about this? He turned to God with the emotional plea:

“Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (ibid., 16-17).

Moses – the symbol of leadership – is not concerned with his personal fate, but with that of the nation. He is afraid that after his death, the nation will be like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. The internal disputes will begin and people will lose sight of the shared purpose that united them throughout their 40 years in the desert, and then within a short time they will disperse. The Jewish nation would be lost. This concern tugs at Moses and he asks God to appoint a leader to replace him.

There are not many leaders for whom this would be a great concern. But the sages of the Midrash reveal to us that Moses was troubled by something else as well:

When Moses saw that his sons had no Torah in them, to take over in leadership after him, he wrapped himself and stood in prayer. He said before Him: “Master of the Universe, tell me who is going to be leading this whole nation” (Avot of Rabbi Natan, 17).

Moses looked at the precedent: Aaron the kohen had died and the person who replaced him was Eleazar, his son. In light of that, Moses understood that after his own death, one of his sons would take his place. Moses could have been pleased that one of his sons would follow his path and seen this as a sort of consolation over his impending death. But he is particularly concerned because he knows his sons and knows that they are not worthy of leading the nation. He faces a difficult dilemma: Should he be pleased about the possibility that one of his sons might take his place at the helm of the nation? This would be a happy piece of news for him personally, but less so for the nation, since his sons would not be ideal leaders.

What does Moses do? He turns to God with a request that He appoint a different leader, one worthy of the complex and challenging role Moses had filled for the previous 40 years. Thus, Moses rises to a rare moral height. Instead of concerning himself with his own fate and that of his family, he worries about the well-being of his nation.

We learn from this that a true leader puts the nation’s needs ahead of his own and the nation’s hopes ahead of his personal ones.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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