On Cancel Culture and Models of Leadership in Parashat Pinkhas

A moment on the Sumarin family before proceeding to the Torah portion

This week AP published an article using the case of the Sumarin family to explain why the abuse of the Absentee Property Law to enable Israel to take the Sumarin home in East Jerusalem, and turn it over tho the  Keren Kayemet – Jewish National Fund , is an indication of what to expect if there is annexation.

It appeared around the world including in the New York Times and Washington Post.  It also appeared in Arabic translation.

Aleida Assmann is one of Germany’s leading intellectuals was one of the 125 intellectuals from Israel and around the world who wrote a letter to the KKL-JNF asking them not to evict the family, and published an op ed about the family in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Here is an English translation of a draft of the op-ed.

Our Torah portion, haftarah and the haftarah we don’t read give us various models of leadership.

God rewards Pinkhas with a “Brit Shalom” (covenant of peace) at the outset of our Torah portion for his act of zealotry at the end of last week’s Torah portion. As I wrote last week, and several times in recent years, he acts as it seems that God and Moses have commanded. He appeases God’s anger by killing two of those engaged in sex entailing idolatry. However, the  “vav” (o) in the Torah scroll in the word “Shalom” is cut off, or broken.  I can’t call Pinkhas a vigilante, because he does what he is commanded to do. I also find it difficult to accept that God is a wrathful God, Who must be appeased in this way.  I would like to think that God is saying that, even if it seems that Pinkhas was doing what God commanded, something is broken here.  In Hebrew (and sometimes in English), the game “telephone” is called “telephone shavur”-a broken telephone, or a broken line of communication. The haftarah we don’t read this Shabbat because it is the first of the three haftaroth of warning before Tisha B’Av, would have been the story of Elijah the Prophet fleeing to Horeb (Mt. Sinai) after his zealous confrontation with the priests of the false god Baal makes him a wanted and a depressed man.  The rabbis said that Elijah was Pinkhas. However, in the haftarah, God is more direct in teaching Elijah/Pinkhas that God is not to be found in gale force winds, earthquakes, fires , or any other powerfully zealous forces, but in a “still small voice.” (First Kings 19:11-12)

As our Torah portion continues, Moses calls upon “God Who is Is the Spirits of All Flesh” (Numbers 25:15) to appoint a new leader (ish-a person) before Moses dies, and God chooses Joshua, who “is filled with “ruakh”-spirit.”  (Numbers 25:18). Firstly, we see that Moses’ leadership is defined by his unending concern for his people. Furthermore,  Kotzker Rebbe elaborates on Rashi’s teaching that Moses asks for a “ish” who would be tolerant of everyone’s opinions. “Ish” is a person-maybe in the spirit of “mentsch” in Yiddish – a decent human being. I don’t know if the word existed in the ”La’az” that Rashi spoke, or had the same implications. We also read in Pirkei Avot2:5  , “Where nobody is acting with basic human decency, try to a “ish”-the person who does.  The Kotzker taught that Moses was concerned that God would appoint Pinkhas, and did not believe that a zealot would be the appropriate choice.  Moses therefore asked God that God appoint somebody who would be more tolerant.  Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin accepts Rashi, but balances it by saying that God wants a leader with “spirit,” who won’t be swayed by others from the Will of God and the teachings of the Torah.  We know that ultimately Joshua was a military leader. But, not only a military leader.

In the haftarah from Jeremiah that we do read, we see that Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet. Like Moses, he argues that he doesn’t know how to speak. God rejects Jeremiah’s arguments, and tells him “Go wherever I send you and speak whatever I command you.” (Jeremiah 1:7) Jeremiah’s task will be to warn and rebuke, but it pains him to do what he is required to do because he loves his people.

In between all of these male leadership models, we have the daughters of Tzlofkhad. They have little standing, but they look for a way to respectfully and carefully find a way to claim their inheritance in a male dominated world.  They don’t/can’t command or demand. They are not leaders, as we think of them. They petition the “leaders.”  However, in so doing, they lead by example, and by bravery, and by determination.

This week, leading intellectuals with very different views caused a splash by speaking out against “cancel culture.” They did not speak out against calling out views we find unacceptable. Quite the opposite, they said we must defeat unacceptable views not by silencing them, but by persuasively arguing against them.  This, of course raises the moral question of when free speech becomes incitement.  The challenge is that words can cause harm. However, the argument of the intellectuals is in line with the word Rashi uses for “tolerate” is “sovel,” to “suffer.” Balancing Rashi, the Kotzker and Sorotzkin, we are called to accept that in a pluralistic society we know that we passionately believe in our truth, and know that we do not hold all the truth. We are called to fight words and ideas that harm any of God’s creations, and recognize that we don’t even agree on the definition of harm. Therefore, a leader must work for a culture in which we all suffer differing views, sometimes truly suffer, without saying that everything is relative or accepting what we believe to be unacceptable. This is not easy. In some ways it is deeply unsatisfying and disturbing. It is neither pluralism as we normally think of it, nor does it always protect fellow human beings as fully as we would like. Yet, ultimately, this may be the best way to prevent the horrors of zealotry carried out in the name of the common good, or in the name of humanity.

I also learn from the different models above that we need leaders who don’t just hear what they want to hear, and can be zealous without zealotry.  We seek leaders who love and respect the people they lead, and who are vigilant for tolerance and for honoring God’s Image in every human being, while standing on principle.   They have the ability to get others to listen to them, to lead by example, and to help others find God through the Still Small Voice. They only resort to pyrotechnics as a matter of last resort. Leadership may require some measure of ego, but Jeremiah teaches this should not be a leader’s motivation for doing what s/he is called to do.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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