Dividing the Torah by weekly sections is a brilliant way to bring familiarity with the entire Torah to a very large portion of the Jewish people. But like anything else, it is not without its costs. One of them is that we often lose sight of the larger perspective we would have if we read each book at one sitting. A good example of this comes in this week’s parsha.
Several commentators are of the opinion that when the Torah speaks about the Israelites as “the people,” it is referring to the least distinguished among them, and that when it speaks about them as Israel, it is speaking about the more refined. Hence when it is “the people” that begin the sin with the daughters of Moav (25:1), we are not surprised. More surprising is that, two verses later, we are told that it is Israel that became connected to the idolatry of Baal Peor. From there, the story moves in almost too fast a fashion to follow. But what does seem clear is that God tells Moshe it is the leaders who are responsible; and that although Moshe acts on that and tells them to take action, it is neither them nor Moshe that save the day, but rather Pinchas.
Much of this story should actually seem like deja-vu, as this is not the first time such a process unfolds. In this column, we noted a similar process in Parshat Beha’alotecha. There too, it is first the rabble that complain; and only afterwards, all of Israel. Moreover just like here, the people’s bewilderment and confusion led them to cry. But Moshe responds differently there. He complains to God that he can no longer lead the Israelites by himself. In response, God relents and gives Moshe the new helpers he requested – problem solved and case closed. But was it?
Where were those new leaders when the scouts came with the bad report, leading the congregation to cry once again? The answer seems to be, nowhere; that they played no role whatsoever. Here God could have easily said, “Moshe, the problem was never that you needed helpers.” But a likely reason God does not, is that Moshe could have answered that these new leaders had just been appointed and couldn’t possibly be expected to be truly effective so early in their new careers.
Now fast forward thirty-eight years to our story. As mentioned, the problem again begins with the [lowly] people but spread to all of Israel who begin to cry. But after so many years God can finally ask Moshe about the leaders that he had thought would save the day. Only God no longer needed to ask, for the answer was now already obvious. Hence (according to the simple reading), He simply tells Moshe to impale them, presumably for not doing their job.
Moshe understands that God is telling him he has to do more to get the leaders to do their job. But it seems that such an approach is not what was needed. Instead, a different leader of the next generation steps up and takes action. That leader was Pinchas. (Others have pointed out the similarities between this story and the story of the golden calf. Hence it would be no accident that Pinchas’ boldness here reminds us of Moshe’s boldness in throwing down the tablets in the earlier story.) In this brief interlude, Moshe sees something he could have done himself without anyone’s help. And he also sees that no one can mass produce leadership, not even God. True leaders like Pinchas don’t come out of leadership schools. When the time is ripe, they simply emerge.
Of course, Moshe was not completely mistaken. There are times we do need helpers. Yitro correctly saw that one person cannot judge the entire population of a modern medium-sized city all by himself. Nor was there a compelling reason to do so.
But that is not what Moshe sought in Beha’alotecha. When things go bad, it is very lonely at the top. Moshe wanted other leaders to share the hard decisions and the work of inspiring the nation. But two are not always better than one. In a time of crisis, a truly outstanding leader needs no one else. Nor are they usually of any help. It took the emergence of Pinchas to illustrate this and bring the story full circle.
Though none of us are likely to lead nations in the foreseeable future, we are actually all leaders – be it of families, work groups, social groups or just ourselves. When things go bad, sometimes the correct answer is to reach out to others who can help. But there are other times when doing so is just fooling ourselves. At those times, we are the only ones who can resolve the situation. It may be lonely, but the only answer lies within us. May we recognize those situations when they arise, and then have the strength of Pinchas to do what accordingly needs to be done!
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast, Moshe’s Call for Help and the Feminization of Society