Parshat Pinchas: A Leader for Each and Every Spirit

“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, the Source of spirit for all humanity, appoint someone over the community’” (Bamidbar 27, 15-16).

We have reached the beginning of the end of Moshe’s life. True, we have not yet even finished the Book of Bamidbar, but the text reiterates two points in our parsha. First, that under no circumstances will Moshe enter the land of Israel, and second that Moshe will die the death of his brother Aharon, a death without suffering or pain, known as the kiss of death.

When Moshe realizes that his role as leader will soon be coming to an end, he makes a simple request from God: appoint a new leader in my place; if he will not lead them in, then someone else who is fitting should fill the position and bring them to the promised land. But the way that Moshe makes this request is strange and verbose, and requires a deeper look. 

‘Let the Lord, the Source of spirit for all humanity, 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 the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (Bamidbar 27, 16-16).

Here, Moshe uses a unique name for God, one we have not heard before: the Source of spirit for all humanity. Why does he invoke God with this unique formulation? 

Also, why does Moshe use such verbose language, that the leader should go out before them, that he should come before them, that he will take them out and bring them in. What is he alluding to with these seemingly repetitive and vague descriptions?

We can see in Moshe’s words something more than the simple request for a suitable replacement. After 40 years, Moshe understands the essential quality that this person will need in order to be successful, and here he articulates it to God. What is that quality?

The simple explanation of the phrase, “God of the Spirits for all humanity,” is that Moshe is calling out to the creator and master of all the souls of the nation. But Rashi sees an additional meaning in the text and adds the following: “Master of the Universe, you know the unique nature of each member of this nation, and that each one is different from the other; appoint a leader who can bear each and every one of them.” 

In other words, the leader has to be one who can appreciate the diversity of the individuals within the nation. Even though these people all share the same story, they carry a tremendous diversity of perspectives; the appropriate leader will have to make space for each and every member. 

But there is more. The leader must go out before them and come before them; whether in war or other matters, he must lead by example. He must be with them in all that comes upon them. 

And lastly, he must take them out and bring them in. What does this mean? No matter what comes upon them, they must maintain their core identity as one nation. His leadership must not lead to divisiveness in the nation, but rather must create a unifying structure that everyone must fit into.

At first glance these may sound straightforward. But if we look closely at what he’s looking for, we see a problem: the qualities that Moshe seeks are contradictory! Is the person supposed to champion individuality, or is he someone who should create a single unified vision for the nation to follow?

The answer is yes.

Moshe is telling God that there is a very specific quality that the next leader must have in order to find success. He must both value individuality, yet have the ability to unite all the diverse perspectives towards a common goal. No voice must be canceled out, yet all the voices should be united. 

As opposed to a group of musicians all playing the same instrument, this would be akin to a symphony. Each instrument has its own unique voice, and has an important contribution to the overall sound of the music. There is an incredible depth and fullness when these instruments play together. But there must be a conductor who knows how to bring these diverse voices together to play in harmony, and not chaos. Moshe is asking for a conductor who knows how to make all the unique voices of the nation sing out in one beautiful song together.

God answers Moshe’s request by appointing Yehoshua, a person who has the spirit within him. He is fitting to unite the people while appreciating the distinctions amongst them. But, God tells him, you must give him from your hod, your glory. What does this mean? 

Our sages teach us that it means that Moshe gives to Yehoshua from the light that emanates from his face, and that just as the face of Moshe was illuminated, so too the face of Yehoshua. It takes great enlightenment, Godly enlightenment, to unite without crushing the individual spirits along the way. It takes great light to appreciate the uniqueness of every soul and to lead each one towards their own promised land. This is the great gift that Moshe understood, and it is this light that he must give to Yehoshua. 

This is not a unique model. Back to the Tower of Babel, we met Nimrod, a man who built with bricks. He broke down the rocks till their was nothing left of their uniqueness, and reformed them into bricks in order to build with them. The midrash teaches that Avraham was also a builder, but he built with stones. He did not break down the rock in order to build with it; rather he cherished the uniqueness of each and every stone and found its perfect placement. 

So we see that going all the way back to Avraham and now continuing with Yehoshua, our leaders must hold a nuanced space for the people. They must allow everyone to feel as if they have their own personal story, while at the same time making them understand that they are an essential part of the broader national story. 

We all have leadership roles that we play, whether in our community, our schools, or in our own families. It might be easier to either let each one express themselves as they will, or create one vision that everyone must adhere to; but the great challenge is walking in the footsteps of Avraham and Moshe and creating a space that both allows for individual expression while still offering a national narrative broad enough for everyone to feel a part.

What do you think? Do the leaders you look up to share that quality, of making space for the individual, while offering an inspiring picture of our national identity? Is there another quality that is more important in a great leader?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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