Parashah of the week: Pinchas

“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: ‘Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community’” Numbers 27:15-16


How should a person respond on being told that their career is over? When he is reminded that his time as the leader of the Jewish people is about to end, Moses responds with a request for a successor. Rather than express disappointment, he immediately turns to the practical next steps, asking God to appoint a new leader for the people.

“Source of the breath of all flesh,” the name that Moses uses to address God in this passage, appears only one other time in the Torah. Midrash Tanchuma explains Moses’s words as follows: “Master of the world, the temperament of each and every person is revealed to You; and the temperament of one person is unlike the temperament of another. Now that I am departing from them, would You please… appoint over them a person who will bear with each and every one of them according to his temperament” (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas, 10).

As the source of each individual’s breath, or spirit, God is uniquely positioned to appreciate the contributions that each individual can make to the collective. Reminded by God of a low point in his own career, it is now clear to Moses that leaders need to embrace the gift of deeply understanding the needs and ability of each person in the collective.

This way of referring to God first appears in Parashat Korach, when Moses confronts a serious challenge to his leadership. Korach and his compatriots rebel against Moses and Aaron, and God is poised to destroy the nation. Moses and Aaron plead with the Divine: “Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, When one member sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” (Numbers 16:22)

As the Midrash explains, Moses is reminding God of the importance of the Divine ability to understand the differences in temperament present in “the whole community.” What seems like a mass of people all bent on scuttling the success of the journey to the promised land is actually a collection of different individuals. In calling out this Divine discernment, Moses and Aaron avert total disaster and God punishes only the core group of dissenters.

By asking for a successor who could echo God’s own capacity to evaluate each person individually, Moses evokes the mitzvah of v’halachta b’derachav, or “walking in God’s ways.” This mitzvah includes imitating the merciful and compassionate behaviours of the Divine; the midrashic understanding of the phrase “Source of the breath of all flesh” reminds us that appreciating the unique personalities of individuals within a collective is also a way to uphold this principle.

Moses’s unusual choice of words is designed to draw attention to the ways in which the best kind of human interaction, including human governance, can be modelled on Divine qualities.

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