Parashat Pinhas – Zealotry and Leadership

וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן יַעֲמֹד


In Chapter 27 of Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe asks ‘א to choose the person who will replace him as leader of the people, as part of the preparations for entering the land of Israel that are depicted at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. The person chosen by the “God of the spirits of all life” (Bamidbar 27:16) is Yehoshua son of Nun  (27:18). In retrospect, the choice is obvious. He was one of the two faithful spies in Bamidbar 14. He served Moshe from his youth (11:28) and never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11). However, before Yehoshua is picked, he is not the obvious choice. This selection comes hot on the heels of the actions and rewarding of Pinhas son of Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Why he should have been passed over is not at first clear, especially considering the lavish praise and reward heaped upon him by ‘א. However, examine the commands given to Yehoshua in terms of how he should lead will demonstrate that the zealotry that Pinhas is famous for is exactly what kept him from being named leader of the Nation of Israel.

When Moshe asks ‘א to appoint a leader for the Nation of Israel, he is given very specific instructions regarding the appointment of Yehoshua.

And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put of your honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. (Bamidbar 27:18-21)

Moshe is told to take Yehoshua and to stand him before Elazar the Kohen Gadol, and that Yehoshua should ask Elazar for “the Judgment of the Urim,” the word of ‘א as received via the Urim V’Tumim, before he leads the people in any new journey. While Yehoshua leads the people, he does not lead them according to his will, but according to the Will of ‘א, as he receives it from the Kohen Gadol. Only once he has gone to Elazar and asked Elazar to ask ‘א what they should do, and Elazar has given Yehosha the response from ‘א, only then can he direct the people.

In direct contrast to this, Pinhas is a zealot. He acts quickly and rashly. He sees Zimri sinning with Cozbi and he acts, grabbing his spear and plunging it through them. He does not wait for instructions, he does not check with Moshe or Elazar to see if what he is doing is right, he simply does it. And he is praised for it, quite extensively. ‘א says of him:

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’ (Bamidbar 25:11-13)

Pinhas’ zealotry results in some of the most effusive praise and reward in Tanakh. However, that does not mean that such actions are proper for a leader.

The 17th chapter of Sefer Devarim contains the commandment for Bnei Yisrael to appoint a king, and the commandments incumbent upon that king.

When you come unto the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell therein; and shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’;  you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you; you mayest not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses; forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you: ‘You shall henceforth return no more that way.’ Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them;  that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel. (Devarim 17:14-20)

The laws of a king are essentially two: 1. the tripartite command to avoid possessing an abundance of wives, horses, and money, and 2. the instruction for the king to always have on his person the sefer torah that he writes in order he “fear the Lord his God,” keep all of the mitzvoth, and not feel as if he is greater than the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Carrying a sefer torah with him at all times ensures that the king will not act out of impulse. It’s much harder to be overcome by emotion and burst out with a sudden bout of monarchical power if you are holding the Law of ‘א in your hands.

The Nation of Israel has had many leaders, from Moshe to David, from Menashe to Ezra, from the Men of the Great Assembly to our own modern day leaders. The one unifying factor has been the necessity of leading the people in line with ‘א’s Law. Leadership is not about self-aggrandizement. The leader is there for the betterment of the people, not vice-versa. While there may be a place for spontaneous zealotry, it’s not on the throne, or in the Knesset. Leadership is about trying to create a life for the people in accordance with their values, in accordance with the Torah. Pinhas may have turned back ‘א’s wrath from upon the people (Bamidbar 25:11), but only Yehoshua, who never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11), had the consistency and dedication to lead Bnei Yisrael.