Parashah of the week: Pinchas

“Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community” Numbers 27:16


A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The "yod" - a hand-shaped silver pointer - is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

In Parashat Pinchas, Moses requests that God appoint a qualified leader to succeed him after his death. There are many fascinating aspects to this narrative. First and foremost is the fact that Moses is proactive in this request.

Just a few short chapters earlier he has received the heartbreaking news that he will not lead the people into the land of Israel (Numbers 20:12). Without prompt from anyone else, he humbly takes on the task of seeking out a successor.

The language in this request is also striking. Moses refers to God as “the God of spirits for every flesh”. This is a unique phrase in Tanach and one that we refer back to in our liturgy, notably in the “God Full of Compassion” prayer we say at a shivah in memory of the dead, where we ask Hashem to guard the soul of the deceased.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, takes note of this strange phraseology and explains that Moses prayed to Hashem and said, “You know full well the mind of every individual, that they do not resemble each other. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to his mind.”

Moses asks for a leader who will tolerate and evaluate people according to their specific circumstances, rather than immediately criticising their mistakes.

This is astonishing. The most obvious explanation as to why Moses was not the right leader to take the people into Israel was because of the way he criticised the people. He lost patience with their fixed mindset and perhaps with his own inability to change them and help them to see past those limitations.

Moses was the greatest leader of the Jewish people, but he was aware of his own failings and sought out a replacement to pick up where he left off. A leader who would have the patience to nurture the growth of each imperfect individual to help them on their path towards greatness.

God responds to Moses’s request by instructing him to appoint Joshua as the successor. God describes Joshua as “a man in whom there is the spirit”.

Perhaps the verse is teaching us that it requires divine spirit to connect to the soul of each person, to look past their failings and have faith in their common humanity. This is what Hashem sees in Joshua and the reason why he is the perfect leader to take over from Moses and lead the people into the land of Israel.

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