Parashat Pinchas 5779

Rabbi Janet Burden, 20 July 2019

Parashat Pinchas contains the poignant story of Moses being told to go up to Mt. Avarim (elsewhere identified as Mt. Nebo or Pisgah) to see the land that had been given to the Israelites, but which he would not be allowed to enter. His response to the situation is telling. He makes one request of God, “Appoint a man over the congregation… so that they should not be like sheep who have no shepherd.” Traditionally, this is interpreted as an illustration of Moses’ selflessness. Even in this moment of great personal sadness, he seems to think only of the people.

The problem with that reading is that it simply doesn’t have the ring of emotional truth that we so often find in Biblical narrative. We have seen throughout the Exodus story that Moses is nothing if not supremely human, and subject to all our human foibles and frustrations. He tries to duck responsibility, he makes mistakes, and he certainly gets angry. In fact, his anger led him to commit the sin at Meribah for which he is forbidden to enter the land.

It does not seem plausible to me that Moses’ reaction here is utterly selfless. Of course, he is concerned about the people. But he is also reacting to his own loss, the loss of his role as leader of the people. I can imagine that behind these words is a hope that perhaps God will realise that there isn’t another suitable leader. Perhaps God will relent and let Moses enter after all?

The reader knows that this cannot be, but we sympathise with Moses. Letting go of a role (and with it a way of being in the world) is so hard. In fact, although he does invest Joshua with some of his “hod” – seeming to mean something of his authority and personal glory – he does not truly relinquish leadership for some time yet. He still has his grand farewell speech to make to the people, which comprises the whole of the book of Deuteronomy.

Moses feels compelled to repeat all of God’s laws, seeking to ensure that the instructions are carried out once he is gone. Given the flow of the story, his reluctance to relinquish leadership is understandable. He has seen how the people have consistently gone wrong: the Golden Calf, the complaining in the desert, the trusting of the report of the spies. Yet perhaps he has forgotten that a new generation had come: a generation which “knew not Pharaoh,” in the same way there was a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. The problems of these new people would be different. Leading them as they settled in the new land would require a different kind of person altogether.

God addresses the problem by both agreeing to and refusing to appoint a shepherd. Joshua is made the new leader, but his leadership is not to be of the same sort. Very pointedly, the text tells us that Joshua is to be brought before the people and before Elazar the priest, who holds the stones of Divine Oracle, the Urim. Joshua will not be free as Moses has been to lead the people without consultation. He must consult with Elazar and the Urim before taking any action. This changes the model of leadership totally, weaning the people off of what I would call the “Pharaonic” model of leadership, where human and divine authority appear to be conflated. This just isn’t healthy, at least not in the long term. We’ve seen it with many disastrous charismatic leaders in the past. So it becomes important for the people to witness a counter-image to Moses’ action at Meribah where, God-like, he appears to draw water from the rock by magic. By striking the rock instead of speaking to it, it looked as if the power over this “magic” was his alone. Before the eyes of the people (l’eineihem), he reinforced an image of leadership that failed to sanctify God. Accordingly, here, in the eyes of the people (l’eineihem), he must relinquish power and also show that it is not absolute. The fact that this is so hard to do makes the point where Moses places his hands upon Joshua in an act of “s’micha” one of the most moving in all of the Torah.

May we always have the courage to assume leadership where it is wanting, and to relinquish it when the time comes. That is the mark of a true mensch.

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