Pinchas: Leadership and Spirit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

I send this to you on a day of mourning, the 17th of the month of
Tammuz, observed as a minor fast day in commemoration of the breaching
of the walls of Jerusalem a few weeks before the destruction of the
second Temple. Rabbinic tradition also associates other tragedies with
this day, but given the current events on the northern and
southwestern borders of Israel, we hardly need to add much to a day
spent in sadness over the “breaching of the walls.” May there be peace
in Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, and throughout the world, and may this
week’s Torah commentary be a prayer for peace for all peoples.

Unfortunately, Parshat Pinchas doesn’t start out in a very peaceful
way- Pinchas, the priest, is praised for an act of violent religious
zealotry, which we’ll discuss another time. (See also a commentary by
R. Alpert on, linked below.) A census is taken,
some laws are straightened out with daughters of Tzlofchad, and then
Moshe is told that he won’t take the people into the Land because of
the incident of striking the rock at Meribah. Moshe then pleads with
God to appoint a worthy successor in his place:

“Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying: ‘Let the Lord, God of the spirits of
all flesh, 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.’

And the Lord answered Moses, ‘Single out Y’hoshua son of Nun- there is
spirit in him – and lay your hand upon him. . . ‘ “(Bamidbar/ Numbers
27:15-18, modified JPS translation.)

The key word in these passages is “ruach,” or spirit- Moshe calls God
the “God of the spirit of all flesh,” and God replies by assuring
Moshe that there is “spirit” in Y’hoshua [Joshua.] “Ruach” can mean
“spirit,” in the sense of “soul,” as we’d use the word today, but can
also mean “breath,” as in the “breath of life” which God put into
humankind. Obviously, these are related meanings- what makes us human
is a spark of the Divine, our capacity for moral choice and spiritual

The true “breath of life” is not merely our biological existence- as
miraculous and awe-inspiring as that is- but also our ability to
become self-aware as spiritual beings, which to me means growing over
time in compassion, humility, awe, generosity, forgiveness, and
reverence. Those are among our “spiritual” or Godly traits, the spark
of the Divine within us.

So when Moshe calls God, “the God of the spirit of all flesh,” we can
understand this to mean: “appoint somebody who understands that they
have Your spirit within them, so that they will act in ways that are
worthy of of the spirit You have given them.”

Rashi’s interpretation of God’s reply fits with this context:

“there is spirit in him. . . As you requested, so that he [Y’hoshua]
will go with the spirit of each one [person]. ”

What Rashi implies is this: because Y’hoshua was a spiritually aware
person, he had the potential to treat other people as though they,
too, were unique spiritual beings, each entrusted with the Divine
capacity for choosing compassion and justice. That’s what true
leadership requires: somebody who will regard others as ends in
themselves, not as means to some other end, be it political, military,
or national. Of course, this is true on a smaller scale, as well:
precisely to the extent that we seek the Presence of God within
ourselves, we will see it in others, and treat them accordingly.
(The reverse is true too!)

My hope and prayer in this broken world of bombs and kidnappings and
conflicts of all sizes is that leadership will arise with spirit in
it- that is, women and men will be called forth by their communities
who see in themselves and all others the Image of God, linking every
human to every other. The spirit of God transcends our conflicts, but
only if we see it in ourselves and each other. Let’s open our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, a summary and further commentary is found on the first
link, and the text of the portion and haftarah in the second link. The
commentary from Rabbi Alpert- my former Hillel boss in Philadelphia-
addresses some of the problems in the Pinchas story:

For more about the 17th of Tammuz, the Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av,
and other minor fast days, go here:

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