There are times when Torah acts as a leadership self-help manual, offering guidance and support. Recently Moses has had to deal with repeated complaints and rebellion (Hukkat and Korah), arguing spies (Shelach lecha) and sorcery (Balak). Both his siblings, Miriam and Aaron, have died, leaving him isolated. Pinchas offers little respite for Moses, but gives us some interesting lessons in leadership.
At the end of the previous parasha, the eponymous Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, is recognised for saving the Israelites from God’s wrath by killing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were having a forbidden relationship in the Israelite camp. In our own time, marked by killings based on racial and religious prejudices, few of us can have much empathy for the affirmation bestowed on Pinchas at the start of the parasha in recognition of his actions. However, leaders are often in positions where they are swiftly judged for either taking or failing to take appropriate action, and are subject to the projected expectations and aspirations of those around them.
Whilst Pinchas’s action may be abhorrent to us and we may struggle to understand why he is given such recognition, we can recognise that in the context of the parasha his decisive action saved the lives of the Israelites dying from the plague. Leaders sometimes need to make difficult decisions and occasionally take unsavoury action to save others.
Pinchas can been seen in contrast to the activities of Nadab and Avihu, sons of Aaron, who die when they offer ‘strange fire’ to God. The midrash tells us that when we are first introduced to the brothers, as they follow Moses and Aaron up the mountain in Exodus, they were already rebellious, asking each other when they will be able to lead the people. This third retelling of the death of the sons reinforces the danger of ignoring established boundaries.
Next, the daughters of Tzelophehad. We first meet them amongst the lists of families counted for the census: ‘And Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters; and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.’ They present a challenge to Moses regarding the planned inheritance of land, which had been mandated as passing from father to son. The evident realisation on the part of Moses that their argument has merit results in a change in the law. Leaders need to show flexibility in dealing with unexpected circumstances.
Finally, after being told that he can’t enter the land because he rebelled against God in Zin, Moses is instructed to prepare Joshua to succeed him as leader. Moses lays his hands on Joshua, conferring wisdom and responsibility on his successor. This, perhaps, is the most powerful lesson in leadership the parasha has to offer: succession planning is essential and whilst we are not always able to choose the successor, it is still incumbent on leaders to ensure that those who come after them are able to take up the mantel of their leadership.
Marc Shoffren is the head of Alma Primary, an inclusive Jewish school in North Finchley. He is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti and father of two inspirational daughters.