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Cultivating New Leaders

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's parsha contains the explosive story of Pinchas (Moses's great-nephew), who sees an act of immorality being committed between Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, a Midianite princess. Pinchas takes swift action at eliminating these two people, which subsequently stops the plague God has sent as punishment, saving countless Jewish lives.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) fleshes out the picture of what occurred before Zimri united with Kuzbi in full public view. Zimri challenged Moses: "Son of Amram! Is this Midianite woman prohibited or permitted to me? If you say she is prohibited, who permitted you to marry your Midianite wife, Tzipporah?"

(Moses married Tzipporah prior to the giving of the Torah, at which time there was no prohibition against marrying Midianite women, whereas Zimri's act was performed after the giving of the Torah, when the prohibition was in full effect. Furthermore, Moses had converted Tzipporah to pre-Torah "Judaism," whereas Zimri had no such intentions. However, these issues were of no concern to Zimri; sometimes, people just aren't interested in answers.)

According to the Talmud, at the moment that Zimri presented his challenge, Moses forgot the law he had received from God at Sinai: namely, that a zealot must take action to eliminate the Jewish perpetrator of such an immoral act. Moses's momentary forgetfulness caused an outbreak of weeping among the entire nation (Numbers 25:6).

This story presents several difficulties. First of all, why did Moses's forgetting a law elicit so many tears? There are far greater tragedies to cry over! Furthermore, the situation was not irreversible; it would simply take a moment for Moses to ask God what the law was!

Another puzzling issue regards the Talmud's comment (Sanhedrin 82a) that it was Pinchas who reminded Moses of the forgotten law - and that, even once Moses had been reminded, it was Pinchas, not Moses, who carried out Zimri's punishment. This seems strange. Once Moses's memory had been refreshed, he himself should have carried out the command!

This is so for two reasons. First, it is always better to perform a mitzvah oneself than to appoint someone else to do it (Kiddushin 41a). Second, Pinchas came from less-than-ideal lineage, and his action could have been criticized: How could a "descendant of idolaters" have the audacity to eliminate a prince of Israel? Whereas if Moses had been the one to eliminate Zimri, no one would have dared to comment.

* * *


A useful insight can be gleaned from the Talmud (Bava Batra 116a), which states that anyone with an ill family member should go to a tzaddik so that the tzaddik can pray on the ill person's behalf. This is a troubling comment. Why do we need holy people to pray for us? Can't we pray on our own? The Me'iri (in Beit HaBechira) explains that we are instructed to go to a righteous person in order to observe how the righteous person prays. Watching the righteous person will then teach us how to pray on our own. From here, Rabbi Zev Leff points out that the role of a leader is to teach people how to function on their own. A leader is not intended to act instead of the people; rather, a master teacher should produce other leaders, not just followers.

This idea will enable us to resolve the two difficulties we raised before. The people did not cry because Moses forgot the law; rather, they cried because Moses's forgetfulness caused them to recognize their own lack of initiative. The whole nation was aware of Moses's imminent death, and they became terrified about their fate. Who would be the next one to lead the people? Would they be helpless once Moses was gone? For a few moments, everyone stood around staring at each other, not knowing what to do. This scenario was certainly something to cry about, because Moses would have failed as a leader had he not produced people who could lead in his absence.

This idea also helps us understand why Pinchas had to be the one to take action, not Moses. Even after Moses was reminded of the law, he intentionally restrained himself from taking action. He did this in order to see if he had been successful as a leader - i.e. if he had succeeded in producing others who knew how to lead.

May we all be blessed to understand that a Jewish leader does not act instead of the people, but rather provides a model to follow. With this in mind, let us all learn from the greats around us and instill in our children the confidence and skill to be the leaders of the next generation.

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