Parashat Pinhas: Leadership through speech

“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord God of all the spirits of mortal flesh appoint a person of stature over the witness congregation’” (Numbers 27:15).

Moses_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Moses was the master of all prophets, and the individual who came closer to God than any other mortal in history. Now, after a chorus of rebellions against him, God tells him that he is about to be taken from this world without entering the Promised Land. His response to God demonstrates his deep and abiding commitment to his nation. He does not seek a reprieve for himself, but rather a fitting successor for his people. In so doing, he identifies the area in which he himself failed, and the qualities which his heir must have in order to succeed, thus defining the sine qua non condition of leadership for future generations, and so leaving a crucial legacy to “Knesset Yisrael.”
The biblical words are stunning in their simplicity: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Climb to the top of this Abarim Mountain [just in front of Mount Nebo] and gaze upon the land which I am giving to the Israelites. After you see it, you will be gathered to your nation, in the same manner as was Aaron your brother. This is because you rebelled against My word at the Zin desert, just as the witness-congregation were engaged in dispute and you neglected to sanctify Me before their eyes with the water…” (Numbers 27:12-14) God is now exacting the punishment He had meted out to Moses in last week’s biblical reading, when the prophet was instructed to take his staff and “speak to the rock”; but instead, “struck the rock with the staff twice.” Although at the time much water gushed forth, God proclaimed that as a result of this transgression, Moses and Aaron would not be permitted to lead the nation into the Land.
Why did God command Moses to take the staff but only to speak to the rock, whereas almost 40 years before, after the splitting of the Red Sea, when the Israelites also bitterly disputed with God over the lack of water, He instructed Moses to take the rod and strike the rock with it? Why was striking the rock a commandment then and a transgression now? Apparently, Moses himself had pondered this question, and in this week’s portion, he arrives at the reason.
There are two types of leadership: leadership with a staff, and leadership with words; leadership by means of power and leadership by persuasion.
A slave people, beaten into submission by a powerful despot, will be moved only by a greater and mightier power. Slaves lack the emotional energy and the rigorous reserve to respond to logical thought or inspirational visions. They require a God with plagues more powerful than the Egyptian Nile, and a leader with a staff more efficacious than that of Pharaoh’s magicians.
But almost 40 years have passed since then, years of wandering in an alien desert and years of being protected by a loving Deity, years of commitment to God’s laws and years of studying God’s words.
And now, when history is repeating itself, when the witness-congregation is again panicked by the lack of water, God adjures Moses: Take your staff of leadership, but instead of striking with your hand, speak with your mouth; instead of commanding with the fiery law of a written Torah from God on High, try convincing with a song of an Oral Torah whose chorus is composed and sung by the souls of all of Israel; the Written Torah is a strict law, eternal, absolute and unchanging, emanating from the Lord, Creator of the Universe, while the Oral Torah is a soft law, born of dialogue with Israel and informed by the compassion and loving-kindness of the God of history.
And so Moses understands that the next leader of Israel must be less a prophet of God and more a man of the people, less a conveyor of God’s eternal law and more a mediator between God’s words and the people’s needs. Moses is at peace with his realization that if the staff was crucial to bring Israel out of Egypt in order to form a nation committed to God and His law, the next leader must use the word – speech and dialogue – to convince, inspire and extract new insights and interpretations of Torah from God’s partners in history, the nation of Israel.
“Moses spoke to the Lord saying, Let the Lord God of all the spirits of mortal flesh appoint a person of stature over the witness-congregation. Let him go out in front of them and let him come in before them, let him take them out and let him bring them in, so that the witness-congregation of the Lord shall not be as sheep without a shepherd” (Num. 27:15-17).
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.