Leadership through violence destroys society

Parashat Pinchas

20 Tammuz 5780/July 10, 2020

Parashat Pinchas presents two models of leadership. One is Pinchas the zealot. The other is Moshe Rabbenu. These two models represent polarities of a deeper tension about leadership. Pinchas acted in a moment of crisis. A leader of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri, had sexual relations publically with a Moabite pagan princess. Imagine, for example, a leader in the free world today consummating political relations with a racist dictator who perpetrated violent atrocities against minorities. Such relations would be tantamount to prostituting the values of human dignity that the democracy in America was designed to protect. A good example of such a political travesty in the 20th century was the Munich Pact, signed by Neville Chamberlain of England and Edourad Daladier of France with the dictator of Nazi Germany. Signing that pact turned a naive, blind eye to the explicitly stated vision of Nazi domination, and resulted immediately in the occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland.  

 On the other hand, it is critical to note that rabbinic opinions include a strong opposition to Pinchas. The Jerusalem Talmud records the debate surrounding vigilante actions taken by zealots, even in moments of crisis that require immediate action:

מַתְּנִי’ הַגּוֹנֵב אֶת הַקָּסַוְא וְהַמְּקַלֵּל בְּקֶסֶם וְהַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִית קַנְּאִין פּוֹגְעִין בָּהֶן …..גמ’ הַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִית. תַּנֵּי רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל זֶה שֶׁהוּא נוֹשֵׂא נָכְרִית וּמוֹלִיד בָּנִים מַעֲמִיד אוֹיְבִים מִמֶּנָּה לַמָּקוֹם. כְּתִיב וַיַּרְא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן מָה רָאָה רָאָה אֶת הַמַּעֲשֶׂה וְנִזְכַּר לַהֲלָכָה הַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִית הַקַּנָּאִים פּוֹגְעִין בָּהֶן. תַּנֵּי שֶׁלֹּא בִּרְצוֹן חֲכָמִים. וּפִינְחָס שֶׁלֹּא בִּרְצוֹן חֲכָמִים א”ר יוּדָה בַּר פַּזִּי בִּקְּשׁוּ לְנַדּוֹתוֹ אִלּוּלֵי שֶׁקָּפְצָה עָלָיו רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאָמְרָה וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם וְגוֹמֵר….(תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת סנהדרין פרק ט הלכה ז )     ז

Mishnah: If someone steals a libation vessel or curses someone through divination or who has intercourse with a pagan woman, zealous vigilantes can kill him…. Gemara: …The Torah says, Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon haKohen saw….What did he “see?” He saw Zimri having intercourse with Cozbi and he remembered this halacha [of the Mishnah]. In response, it was taught that the rabbis disagreed with his action. Rabbi Yuda bar Pazi said, “The rabbis would have excommunicated Pinchas! were it not for the fact that God’s holy spirit intervened and declared, Behold! I grant you My covenant of priesthood for all time! (Bemidbar 25:13).

The rabbis opposed Pinchas’ zealous action because he assumed the position of witness, judge, Beit Din, and executioner all in one. By doing so, Pinchas subverted the rule of law and the critical position and authority of the judiciary to protect the stability and integrity of a society’s foundation. Even when there is a crisis, a vigilante response is to be avoided at all costs. Zimri and Cozbi were not the problem. The problem lay deeper. They were symptomatic of a spiritual pathology embedded in the consciousness and founding of the Jewish people: the allure of paganism. Our ancestors never quite confronted their predisposition to be attracted to the seductive power of paganism and then to move away from the spiritual principles of a God-centered world. 

The Torah teaches us those principles throughout Sefer Bereshit and Shemot. They are that all human beings are created in God’s image. The experiences of our ancestors teach us to protect immigrants, minorities, and disenfranchised communities and to guard against the abuse of power when we ourselves are a sovereign power. These principles include guarding and protecting the earth, and to celebrate and protect life in a state of tahara as much as possible. They include living with humility by realizing that just because we have the power and capacity to do whatever we want, eat whatever we want, and abuse whomever we want, we may not, because we all serve the Creator of the universe. Paganism is not just worshipping an idol. It is serving an ossified vision of reality. Pagans worship a static view of the world in which everyone and everything must fit their singular image of a god. The world, then, does not celebrate the beauty of diversity, of change, or of mystery. The world is singular, narrow, small, and intolerant. It feels nostalgic, familiar, and safe, with no room for anything or anyone who is “different.” 

God rewarded Pinchas, just as God placed a mantle of leadership on Eliyahu haNavi, the other famous zealot of the Tanach. Yet, although God recognizes that passionate zealotry has its moment of importance, zealots cannot rule. Eliyahu is sent into the wilderness after killing 450 priests of ba’al, and must be instructed that God’s presence and power is found, ultimately, in the sounds of silence. (I Kings 19) Pinchas is rewarded with a position and responsibility for kahuna, where he will have to follow strict rules of conduct. I suggest that God sometimes tolerates zealots, but does not easily abide by them.

Moshe is very different. He does not tolerate zealotry, and teaches against impassioned, impetuous response. On the phrase, “…and Pinchas saw and took a spear in his hand,” Rashi commented:

And Pinchas saw — He saw what was being done and he was thereby reminded of the law on this subject (The Mishnah quoted above, Sanhedrin 82a). He said to Moshe, “I have received a tradition from you: he who has intercourse with an pagan woman, zealous people may attack him!” Moshe replied to Pinchas: “Let him who reads the letter be the agent for executing it!” Straightway, “…he took a spear in his hand…..(Sanhedrin 82a).

Moshe’s comment is very revealing. It is as if Moshe said to Pinchas: “Yes, I know what the law is on the books. However, I have no intention of acting on it. That will do much more harm than good. You will attack the symptom, but leave the underlying disease to fester. You will stay the plague, which will bring immediate relief. Your radical response will save the moment, but make it more difficult to get people to see the real problem. You want to act on that law, go ahead. That act will not become part of my legacy…..”

We know that Moshe opposed zealotry. In Beha’alotecha, Yehoshua tries to silence the voices of Eldad and Medad:

Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and Hashem’s spirit rested upon them. They…prophesied in the camp. A lad ran and told Moshe, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!’ Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe’s servant from his youth, answered and said, “Moshe, my master, imprison them!’ Moshe said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? I wished that all of God’s people were prophets, so that God would bestow an inspired spirit upon them! (Bemidbar 11)

Yehoshua acted with zeal, and Moshe stayed the impetuous passion of the zealot. Eldad and Medad’s voices must not be silenced. Perhaps Moshe learned from his own life experience after he murdered the Egyptian and fled to Midian. In this parasha, Moshe transfers the authority of his leadership to an older, more tutored Yehoshua. He places his hands on Yehoshua to confer the authority of leadership before the entire nation. In a beautiful moment of self-understanding, Moshe turns to God and significantly calls God by the most humanistic, universalistic name in the entire Tanach: 

Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying, “Let God, the 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 God’s people may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”  (Bemidbar 27:15-17)

Rashi quotes the midrashic explanation of why Moshe calls upon Hashem as the Creator of all humanity, just when he is seeking a person to replace him as the leader of the Jewish people only:

the Source of the breath of all flesh— Why is this expression used? Moshe said to God: “Lord of the Universe! the personality of each person is revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to his individual character (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 10; cf. Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 776).

Moshe is teaching us that true leadership celebrates, appreciates, supports and understands human diversity. Such a leader recognizes differences within the people, and beyond them. A zealot cannot tolerate diversity. Despite the fact that the zealot might halt an immediate crisis, society pays a steep price for such extremism. The underlying false beliefs about the past remain deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of the people. Zealots, ultimately, must be contained, like Pinchas and Eliyahu were. What society needs is leadership courageous and honest enough to live with the tensions implicit in diversity, see the beauty in such diversity, and appreciate God’s humanity with humility and self-effacement. Moshe was such a leader, and tried to tutor Yehoshua in these same values. 

This message applies not only to this moment in America. It also emerges from the fast of the 17th of Tammuz that passed on Thursday. The fast was established by the rabbis to recall the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people on the 9th of Av three weeks later. Days of memory provide us with the opportunity to re-think our past and project a vision for a better future. The process of re-thinking past events and taking responsibility for decisions made by others in order to correct past errors is a deep feature of Jewish  spirituality. We were not directly involved in the corruptions that resulted in God’s decision to have Jerusalem destroyed and our people exiled, but the rabbis teach us to reflect on those events, learn from the errors of the past, and do teshuvah as a way to work towards the redemption of the world.

Zealots cannot lead our people in a way that inspires and enables us to re-think our past. Today here, in Israel, and around the world, this moment in time, requires leadership that will enable us to think, to see the bigger picture, and to recognize that mistaken, pagan, idolatrous attitudes and actions of the past must be rejected and corrected. We dare not create idols of the past, and worship them as if they are divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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