Jewish Life

Torah Portion – Pinchas

By Shlomo Riskin


This week’s portion of Pinchas emphasizes different types of leadership – and especially the necessary switch-over from the authoritative, majestic, scepter-staff leadership of Moses to the very different, humanistic and democratic leadership of Joshua. We must analyze the difference between Moses’ leadership and the leadership of Joshua – and why each was vitally necessary for its respective generation of Israelites. Such an analysis will also illuminate why Moses could not himself bring the Israelites into the Promised Land.

God commands Moses to ascend the heights of Abarim (a peak of Mount Nebo) to view the Promised Land below, and then to be gathered to his nation-family.

This is because he had disobeyed God’s command: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Numbers 20: 12). Moses had struck the rock (symbolizing the stubborn, hard-as-a-rock, stiff-necked nation) rather than speaking to it, as the prelude to the miraculous gushing out of life-giving water from that very inanimate rock (ibid. 20:11).

Moses, painfully aware that God is seeking new leadership, defines what he believes to be the necessary qualities of his successor: “May the Lord, God of the various spirits of all flesh, appoint a person over the eda [the flock] who will go out before them and come in before them [empowering them to follow his lead] and who will take them out and bring them in [caringly, lovingly nurture them], so that God’s witness-community shall not be like a sheep without a shepherd.” (ibid. 27 16–17)

Rashi, commenting on the unique phrase used by Moses to describe the Deity (“God of the various spirits of all flesh”), explains: “The mind of each individual Israelite is clear and known to You, and the various minds are all different. Appoint a leader over them who has the capacity to be patient with each of them in accordance with his unique mind-set and opinion.”

According to this interpretation, Moses is requesting that the new leader be a man of the people who has the capacity to listen to and respect the various opinions of the Israelites. He must take those opinions seriously in formulating his policies.

It must be remembered that Moses had assumed the leadership of a weakened and bedraggled slave people under the thumb of a totalitarian tyrant, Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s degrading and de-humanizing policies against them had robbed them of any vestige of self-confidence gleaned from their patriarchal traditions.

Moses came to them – and had to come in such a fashion if it was to succeed with them – with the authoritative message of the Majesty of the Universe, the King of all Kings, whose revelation of commandments, morality and freedom was more exalted and enduring than the highest of Egypt’s pyramids.

Moses was also temperamentally suited to this style of leadership. He had spent 60 years of solitude in the desert of Midian, communing and meditating with God, speaking to Him daily, “mouth to mouth,” and developing his spiritual and intellectual capacities.

Moses had become “heavy of speech,” involved in the legalism of a jurisprudence dedicated to compassionate righteousness and moral justice, inspired by the theology of a God of love, compassion and truth.

Moses, therefore, understandably lacked the patience required of a man of the people. He did not engage in the small talk necessary to painstakingly convince each individual of the truth of the Divine word. He did not have the marketing salesmanship required to tailor God’s message so that it would be compatible with the opinions of “600,000 prime ministers.” He was too close to God to have the patience to convince the masses to accept the Divine word.

Moses’s hard spiritual and intellectual work on himself had made him a man of God, comfortable with wielding the scepter of the Divine in whose Name he spoke. He was, however, impatient with the more interpersonal dialogue, the give-and-take of political leadership. And so Moses, who impatiently struck the stiff-necked rock of the people he had liberated from Egyptian bondage, could not lead them in the next phase of their development, when they would enter the Promised Land as free people created in God’s image.

To be sure, only a Moses could have succeeded in taking Israel out from under the thumb of Pharaoh; and only a Moses could have gleaned from God His eternal words which would serve Israel as their eternal Torah.

For this, Moses, the man of God, was crucially and singularly necessary.

But now, as they return to their land armed with self-confidence and their constitution, the Torah, a new kind of leader is necessary, one who will empower the nation to become God’s full partners in directing their own destiny. Now a more democratic and sympathetic leader of the people is required; a man “in whom resided the spirit of the various spirits of all of the individuals of Israel.” Joshua ben-Nun is necessary – a man who will assume the softer scepter of partnership-style leadership, who will join the input and interpretation of the nation of Israel to the eternal word of the Divine.


Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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