Determining the Qualities of an Ideal Political Leader

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min.

This week's parashah, Pinchas, is all about succession and inheritance. Who will succeed Aaron in the priesthood? To whom will the land pass as the Israelites enter it? Who can claim a man's land if he has no sons? Who will succeed Moses and lead the people into the Promised Land? In a few short chapters (Numbers 25:10-30:1) we learn the following: the land will pass to all Israelites according to the number of family members who left Egypt, not the number of family members who will enter it; Pinchas, Aaron's grandson, will take on the mantle of the priesthood; Zelophehad's daughters will, indeed, inherit the land designated for their father's descendants; and Joshua will take over leadership from Moses.

Having settled the details of who will receive which pieces of land, God brings Moses to a place where he can survey the land. He and the people are poised at the edge of the land when God informs Moses that he will die without ever entering it. In response, Moses realizes that he must have a successor. Rather than select his own successor, Moses turns to God, in an act that some commentators describe as prayer, and says, "Let the Eternal One, 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 27:16-17).

Moses wants God to be the ultimate decision maker; however, he sets himself up as God's consultant, choosing to share the wisdom he has acquired about leadership. He offers knowledge as one who has led the Israelites out of exile, who has come to know the people's strengths and weaknesses, and who has observed how power and authority have been exercised by political leaders (such as Pharaoh) and priestly leaders (such as his father-in-law Jethro, his brother Aaron, Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, and more recently, Aaron's son Eleazar).

Together, Moses and God articulate that the next leader will "go out before them [the people] and come in before them, and . . . shall take them out and bring them in . . ."(Numbers 27:17). The next leader will be "an inspired individual,"in Hebrew, ish asher ruach bo (Numbers 27:18).

Rashi explains that a man of spirit, a leader who is inspired, knows how to stand up against the spirit in each individual person. Such a leader is tolerant, but not passive or spineless. Such a leader knows his own mind and will stand up for his views, but he is also capable of changing his mind and freeing himself from preconceived ideas. The spirit is strong, but it can be moved.

The midrashic collection Tanchuma takes this idea a step further and suggests that a leader must be able to relate to people with whom he disagrees. He must not only be tolerant, but also find a way to communicate with and even understand divergent views.

This is the very quality that God adds to those enumerated by Moses. Moses wants the people to have a leader they can follow — a leader who will not just accompany them, but also go before them. The midrashic collection Sifrei notes that many earthly leaders would determine that a war needed to be fought, but they themselves would not go into battle. However, the ideal leader of the Israelites, as envisioned by Moses, would not only go into battle with his men, but would also put his own life at risk by taking his own position in the vanguard.

It is the second half of Moses's concern that is particularly striking. His successor is supposed to lead his men into war and bring them back out of war. Going to war may, in fact, be something a leader feels is justified and necessary. He or she has the authority to bring them into war. However, he or she also is responsible for thinking about how to get the people out of war: For this, too, the leader is duty-bound. Perhaps it is this second, often more difficult task, that prompts God's comment about spirit. If, as the midrashim suggest, a person of strong spirit is, in fact, one who can consider divergent opinions and be moved, then a political leader, who is responsible for the well-being of the people—most especially at times of war—must have an exit strategy when he contemplates entering a war. And a leader must consider all possible exit strategies when the time has arrived to "bring them in."For, if he or she does not, the people will be like a flock without a shepherd, at the mercy of their enemies and at the mercy of the elements. The true test of the spirit of a leader is his or her ability to recognize that strength and flexibility complement and inform each other.

Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.

The Wrong Shepherd

Daver Acher By: Ruth Gais

This is one of my least favorite parashiyot. I have always disliked Pinchas's zealotry and, perhaps even more, God's approval of and reward for such zealotry. I can almost understand a logic of numbers that finds the death of the sinful Israelite and the Midianite "temptress"a small price to pay for turning aside God's wrath and preventing the continuation of the terrible plague that would undoubtedly kill many more. But still, but still . . . there is something chillingly cold-blooded and repugnant about Pinchas's eagerness to murder-even, or especially, in the name of God.

Rabbi Wiener's poignant d'var Torah discusses the qualities of a successful leader in a troubled time. I'd like to discuss the qualities of a successful follower in a troubled time. Pinchas is not a leader; he is the quintessential follower and, as such, a very dangerous person. God wants something done; Pinchas goes and does it, no questions asked-he just does it. The text tells us that God is very angry at the Israelites' backsliding into idolatry, but is Pinchas's reflexive behavior the only way to act? Abraham convinces God to give Sodom and Gomorrah a chance; Moses, after the incident of the Golden Calf, deflects God's anger through argument. But Pinchas, the follower, murders.

Like Rabbi Wiener, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, who witnessed the Warsaw Ghetto's final days, comments upon Numbers 27:17. He, however, is interested in the last part of the verse: ". . . so that the Eternal ' s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd."For Rabbi Shapira, ethical behavior is not just a leader's responsibility. The leader's community has equal responsibility in determining the road they all walk. The real leader lives in the conscience of each of us. As Rabbi Shapira says, "The shepherd must enter inside, into the depths of each person"(Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942[Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson Publishers, 2000], p. 114).

Rabbi Ruth Gais, Ph.D., is the director of the New York Kollel, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York.

Reference Materials

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568

Originally published: