Parashat Pinchas: Understanding What Leadership Really Means


Are you ready for the elections? In Parshat Pinchas, we witness the ordination of Joshua bin Nun as the successor to Moses, the Israelites’ first national leader.

Eitan CooperExecutive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes admires Pinchas’ leadership. Pinchas understood that there are moments when bold zealotry is required, but most of the time leadership demands dialogue and tolerance. How does this relate to the upcoming elections in Israel?

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I admire Pinchas, son of Elazar grandson of Aaron, a leader who did the right thing at the right moment, against serious opposition. He is controversial. Some commentators have viewed him as a vigilante, who took the law into his own hands, and thus his actions are suspect, but on balance, I find him to be nothing short of extraordinary.

In Numbers chapter 25, the children of Israel were already camped opposite Jericho. The 40 years of wandering in the desert were over, and finally a new generation was poised to enter the Promised Land. Suddenly there is more trouble. The young men have been seduced sexually by Midianite women into committing idolatry, and as a result, a plague is raging through the Israeli encampment. Tens of thousands are already dead.

The leader of the Tribe of Shimon “approaches” the leaders together with a Midianite princess. But it is not an approach, it is a bald challenge. A Midrash states that they had sex right there in front of Moses at the entrance to the Tabernacle.

Rashi quotes another Midrash in Tractate Sanhedrin relating that the challenge to Moses’ authority is made more poignant since he himself is married to Tzipporah, a Midianite woman, and is thus paralyzed to act. Moses knows that intermarriage in and of itself is hardly a crime, and he is silenced.

What would you do in that situation? Hillel says in Pirkei Avot: “Where there is no man around, endeavor to be the man”. Pinchas steps up and kills the couple, running them through with a spear. This extreme, stunning act stops the wave of idolatry and the plague. Even the God of Israel is impressed, awarding Pinchas his “Brit Shalom” (Covenant of Peace), the sign of which is that he and his offspring will hold the high priesthood forever.

According to the text, Pinchas’ zealous action was committed on behalf of God’s jealousy. Jealousy and zealotry in Hebrew are the same word “Kin’a”. It says in Song of Songs Ch. 8 “Love (ahava) is as strong as Death; Jealousy (kina) is as harsh as the grave”. Jealousy is the dark side of love, stormy and sometimes even violent.

The Jewish people are commanded in the Torah to love God, and the proof that God loves the People of Israel, is that God is jealous mainly in one situation: when another God is worshipped. As a jilted lover, God is about to kill the beloved – Israel. In this case Pinchas’ bold action subdued God’s jealousy and saved his generation.

But Pinchas was not by nature a zealot. Years later in Joshua Ch. 22, after the Promised Land has been conquered, the soldiers of Reuven, Gad and Menashe are discharged from the Israeli army. They return home across the Jordan River in Gilead and build an alternative altar there, identical to the one at the Tabernacle in Bet El. Infuriated and terrified of God’s wrath, the tribes raise an army to end this apparent new sedition. Who stops them? Pinchas! He leads a delegation to Gilead, listens patiently and accepts the explanation of their leaders that the ersatz altar was built only as a monument to remind their children that despite the geographical distance, they are part of Israel, God’s people. The threat of division and civil war was averted, the generation was again saved.

Pinchas understood that there are moments when bold zealotry is required, but most of the time it is dialogue and tolerance, “the gentle ways” of Torah that nurture unity and spread God’s name in the world. Extremist religious leaders in today’s Israel could learn a thing or two from his model. They use their political influence to delegitimize millions of Jews whose religious practice does not accord with their worldview. They refuse to allow their followers to set foot in the building of an organization they perceive as belonging to the Conservative stream, and force the Israeli government to conform.

Last week, at the Schechter Institute, we received a phone call from the logistics director of the Israel Elections Commission. In March the Commission rented rooms at our Jerusalem campus to train its polling station staffs for the April elections. Then the Haredim protested and forbid their followers to enter our building, but the Commission honored its contract, and most of the Haredi poll observers, who are paid, showed up anyway. This time the clearly embarrassed logistics director explained that despite their very positive evaluation of our facility, the Commission would not be able to use it to prepare for September’s elections because of “orders from above”.

This is just one tiny example among thousands of almost daily infuriating incidents, a symptom of a deeply rooted political malaise that causes them, but this time there is a happier outcome. A furious letter from Schechter and angry phone calls, along with the threat of going to the media with recorded conversations, brought results. The Election Committee capitulated, and will now hold some of its training at Schechter. In Israeli society, a zealous response a la Pinchas in Numbers Ch. 25 is sometimes the only way to get attention, and “overturning the tables” (an expression frequently heard here) is often more effective against injustice than legal action.

Our Prime Minister as well as many of the opposition leaders consider the Haredi parties to be ideal coalition partners. As such, they ignore the will of a large majority of Jewish voters who support center-right or center-left Zionist parties, and by pandering to extremists, contribute to their increasingly outrageous demands. This year it finally engendered a political crisis and new elections. Both major parties will most likely be punished by a justifiably angry electorate, which is what the polls are now showing. Depending on how it plays out, these elections could be a wake-up call for Israeli leaders, or they could result in a widening of the rift dividing Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.

Pinchas, the son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron, must be turning over in his grave somewhere in Samaria, but I believe he would also be pleased to know that at Schechter, Israeli women and men, Orthodox, traditional, Conservative, Reform and secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, left and right, learn together. They engage in a dialogue around their Jewish-Israeli identities that, rather than dividing them, empowers them and brings them together to form a model of religious tolerance for all Israelis.