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.
I offer this word of Torah in honor and memory of my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Aaron David Panken.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, President of HUC-JIR, died tragically on the eve of ordination this past May. In eulogizing our great teacher, Dr. Larry Hoffman taught us that Aaron had been prepared to speak to the 2018 ordinees about the text so frequently placed over Torah arks in our sanctuaries: “Know before whom you stand.” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 28b). Aaron had planned to tell the new cantors and rabbis that having awareness that we stand before God also implies that we also know for what we stand—for and on what we are willing to stake our leadership.
Standing before God and standing up as a leader call us to take risks. Parashat Pinchas provides us with the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who also “stand” (ta-amodna) up and as Rabbi Grushcow notes above, “show tremendous courage, as women in a patriarchal society, to challenge the law and stake their claim.” These daughters not only demand their inheritance, but also, when Moses turns the judgement over to God, they become the first Israelites about whom God affirms, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just!” (Numbers 27:7).
While so much has changed since the days of these brave daughters, in our era we are all too aware of disenfranchisement at the hands of those who seek to wield authoritarian and patriarchal power. In the era of #MeToo and resurgent racism and inequality in the United States and Israel, we can discern lessons from these successful social change agents:
- They take a risk in coming forward publicly.
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, like many rabbinic commentators, notes that these women are brave and masterful, for before they even can stake a claim, they must bravely come forward in the public square, and speak out:
“Before they even open their mouths, they come forward, they stand before all the dignitaries of the people. Both verbs, each introducing a separate verse, express audacity: … Before a word has been spoken, therefore, the narrative has set these sisters in a world that holds no obvious place for them” (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers [NY: Schocken, 2015] p.263).
How do we create the situation in which we make room for the disenfranchised to tell their stories? Do we listen? Do we believe them? Do we act in accordance to their testimony?
- They stand together and do not present competing claims.
According to the Haamek Davar (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin), these five sisters are successful “Because they were five and did not send one of them to represent the rest. Rather, all of them were wise, and could represent their claim” (Haamek Davar, Numbers 27:2:2).
How do we ensure that our claims for justice do not become competing claims that obfuscate or seek to deny the claims of another?
- As partners, the daughters find a way to share the same message with each individual leader, and then influence the whole political body.
The Haamek Davar continues, “And after (they stepped forward together), this one spoke with Moses, and that one with Elazar, and that one with the chiefs. Until it was appropriate that they would come before all of them to represent themselves.
How do we serve as allies and use our access to bring important messages to those in power, in ways that leaders can hear? How do we create allies and then build allegiances?
- They make a pragmatic demand that is immediately actionable.
While these daughters of Zelophehad left us with considerable work to do to create equality and equity in our society and in the Jewish People, they made a specific policy request that was granted, and immediately created change for them and set precedent for all future generations.
When seeking change, how do we connect demands for complete justice with demands for practical, implementable (if sometimes imperfect) policy changes that have real-life impact?
As we stand up before God, may we know for whom and for what we stand, and learn from these lessons of our risk-taking, justice-seeking ancestors.
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. 961–968
First Haftarah of Affliction, Jeremiah 1:1−2:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,278−1,281; Revised Edition, pp. 1,113–1,115