Parashat Pinchas: Four comments on leadership

Humility, dedication to the nation’s needs, tolerance and taking responsibility are the traits of an ideal leader, as Rashi taught us based on the words of the Torah.

 MOSES ASKS God to appoints a new leader for the nation so they ‘will not be like sheep without a shepherd.’  (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
MOSES ASKS God to appoints a new leader for the nation so they ‘will not be like sheep without a shepherd.’
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

This week’s Torah portion describes a series of events that occurred prior to the children of Israel entering Israel. Let’s focus on two of those events: the story of the request made by the daughters of Zelophehad, an unknown man from the tribe of Menashe, to receive their portion of the land in the Land of Israel; and the dialogue between God and Moses regarding the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. 

We will concentrate on the comments made by the famous biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, northern France, 1040-1105) and notice how the Torah constructs for us the image of the ideal leader.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad begins with a census of the children of Israel ahead of entering Israel and the division of portions to the tribes, families and individuals. As was customary in those days, the census was done of the men of the family. The daughters of Zelophehad, whose father had died, were concerned that they would be deprived of a portion of land and came to Moses to complain:

Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.

Moses’ immediate response is not written in the Torah. We are surprised to discover that he didn’t know the answer, so he turned to the source of biblical law, God:

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

“So Moses brought their case before the Lord” (Numbers 27:4-5).

“So Moses brought their case before the Lord.”

Numbers 27:4-5

Rashi reveals to us that it was not a coincidence that Moses didn’t know the answer. “The law eluded him, and here he was punished for crowning himself (with authority) by saying, ‘and in the case that it is too difficult for you, bring it to me.’” Rashi notes a hint of arrogance in Moses’ words when calling to the nation to present him with their questions and challenges. As a result, God reveals to all of us that even Moses, the master of prophets, does not know everything. Sometimes, he even needed to clarify a law he was not clear about.

Transfer of leadership

Now, let’s turn from the story of the daughters of Zelophehad to the description of the transfer of leadership. God turns to Moses and instructs him:

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” (Numbers 27:12-13).

THIS WAS undoubtedly a difficult message. If we expected Moses to mourn what he was told, we would be surprised at his reaction. He turns to God and asks Him to appoints a new leader for the nation “so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” 

Rashi points out, “This (verse comes) to let us know the virtues of the righteous, for when they are about to depart from the world, they disregard their own needs and occupy themselves with the needs of the community.” As a devoted and dedicated leader, Moses put his own personal story aside and dealt with national needs.

If we pay attention to the language Moses used, we will discern two additional aspects that complete the picture:

“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” (Numbers 27:16-17).

The name “the God of spirits of all flesh” is not common in the Torah. Why did Moses choose this moniker? Rashi explains that there is a strong connection between this moniker and the personality of the intended leader. “Why is this said? He said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, the character of each person is revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to his individual character.’”

A worthy leader is one who can accept all the different streams in the nation, with all their various opinions, lifestyles and aspirations which sometimes oppose one another. A worthy leader is not the leader of a specific group, or a specific sector. He is a leader of the entire nation, someone “who will tolerate each person according to his individual character.”

This brings us to the description of a leader’s role: “who will go forth before them and come before them.” This obscure phrase is explained by Rashi in the following manner: “Not like the kings of the (gentile) nations, who sit at home and send their armies to war, but as I did, for I fought against Sihon and Og.” A worthy leader takes responsibility and marches at the head of the nation. The concept of a commander calling to his soldiers to follow him began with Moses.

Humility, dedication to the nation’s needs, tolerance and taking responsibility are the traits of an ideal leader, as Rashi taught us based on the words of the Torah. These are the traits we must seek out in searching for a leader, and these are the traits we must nurture in ourselves and in the precious treasures we are responsible for nurturing: our children and pupils.■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.