As we come towards the end of the Book of Numbers, Moses is constantly reminded that he will not be the one to lead his people into the Promised Land — along with the vast majority of the Israelites who left Egypt. In Parashat Pinchas, we find the second census of the people by the Jordan River before their crossing; those named in the first, at the beginning of the book, have almost all died in the wilderness. Joshua, one of two sole survivors, will be the one who leads them forward.
Joshua’s selection as leader comes in a passage from this week’s parashah that is used to this day in many rabbinic and cantorial ordination ceremonies, including within the Reform Movement:
Moses spoke to the Eternal, saying: “Let the Eternal, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:15-17)
At God’s instruction, Moses proceeds to lay his hands on Joshua’s head, authorizing him to be the next leader.
Joshua is a familiar figure; we have seen him as Moses’ second-in-command throughout. However, he was not the only contender.
At the very beginning of this parashah, and at the end of the last one, we read the story of Pinchas. Pinchas the priest was a zealot, who killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman who he caught in flagrante. The Talmud in particular shows deep ambivalence about Pinchas’ vigilante justice, but in the Torah, he seems to be rewarded: his action stops a plague, and God gives him a covenant of peace (Numbers. 25:10-13).
The Kotzker Rebbe (Polish, 19th century) writes:
When Moses saw how great Pinchas was, he was afraid that he would be chosen as the leader, but he was not pleased with the prospect of having such a zealot as the leader of the Jewish people. He therefore asked of God that the leader be a tolerant person, and not a zealous one.” (Torah Gems, v.3, Yavneh Publishing, 1998, p.144)
The midrash goes further, noticing the unusual name by which Moses calls God in this passage: Source (God) of the breath (literally: “breaths”) of all flesh. Moses appeals to God’s knowledge of the innate diversity of human beings:
Moses requested of the Blessed Holy One at the hour of his death, saying before God: “Master of the Universe, the mind of each and every one is known before you, and none of them are the same as another’s. When I am separated from them [by death], I ask of you please to set someone over them who will be patient with each and every one according to their uniqueness…” (B’midbar Rabbah 21:2)
Moses calls upon God to choose a successor for him who will understand and respect the differences between people, rather than a zealot like Pinchas whose instinct is to find the sinners and kill them, to separate between “us” and “them.”
Who else might have been the next leader? One tradition suggests that Moses looks to his own children. Following the famous episode in which Zelophehad’s five daughters step forward to claim their father’s inheritance (Numbers 27:1-11), Moses voices the hope that his sons will inherit his role (Tanchuma, Pinchas 11). God quickly squelches this idea. The leadership of the people is not to be hereditary; Moses will not be the first in a family dynasty. Moses’ legacy is to be based on merit, not blood — and so Joshua, his disciple, earns the role.
But there is still something to be learned about leadership from the episode of the daughters of Zelophehad. They show tremendous courage, as women in a patriarchal society, to challenge the law and stake their claim, and it is a tribute to the Torah that they prevail. But there is more. Unlike almost all the siblings in Genesis — Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers — there is no rivalry between these sisters. They manage to come together, for the good of their family and each other.1
Pinchas models passionate leadership. But Moses sees the risks: someone so passionate will be blinded to the needs of his flock, and to the differences that make them whole. In contrast, God originally chose Moses as leader because he searched for a lamb who went astray, and had compassion on its need for water (Sh’mot Rabbah 2:2). Pinchas would bring a politics of division with his passion, and so although he is rewarded in his relationship with God, he will not be the leader of the people. The daughters of Zelophehad, who are brought together by their love of family and their love of the Land; Joshua, who patiently sat at Moses’ feet and learned from watching him lead; these are the models to which we turn.
Parashat Pinchas ends with the holiday calendar: which holidays are to be observed when, and what sacrifices are to be offered. In a very tangible way, this brings the conversation home. Think of what happens when we sit at the table together. It may be the Passover seder or Thanksgiving, (which after all, is based on Sukkot); it may be with with our families of origin, our chosen families, or some combination of the two. Almost certainly there will be differences of opinion — how could there not be, since we are all made in the image of a multifaceted God? Our challenge is to show the generosity of spirit that Moses shows, when he lays his hands upon Joshua. God commands him to lay one hand on him, but Moses uses both, “filling him generously with his own wisdom” (Rashi on Numbers 27:23). Inspired by God, we look with generous eyes to see the uniqueness of every human being, and our ability to unite.
1. This point is made by Pamela Wax, “Daughters and Inheritance Law,” in The Women’s Torah Commentary, ed. Elyse Goldstein (Jewish Lights, 2000), pp.307-314.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis.