Friday, June 28, 2013

Can Extremists Be Leaders?

Question of the Week, Parshat Pinchas: 

In this week's parsha, Pinchas, we read the culmination of the story of the zealot Pinchas, who killed - execution style- the chieftain of the Simonite tribe and the Midianite woman with whom he was cohabiting. The act of zealotry, according to the text, ended the plague that God inflicted on the Israelites because of their idol worship to Baal Peor. At the beginning of our parsha, Pinchas received from God a "brit shalom" a covenant of peace (Numbers 25:10-15). 

Several paragraphs later, Moses asks God to appoint a successor to the Israelites who will lead them into Israel. 

What is the connection between these two episodes? 


Moses' request for the appointment takes place right after Pinchas's act of zealotry that was witnessed by the entire congregation. It seems, argues the Rebbe of Kotzk, that Pinchas would be the ideal candidate since he demonstrated courage and ingenuity  by taking action and killing the offenders. Indeed, this action of Pinchas was even endorsed by God himself. 

Yet, it is precisely this which frightens Moses. He likes Pinchas and no doubt approves of his act, but at the same time he cannot see how this zealot, who in a moment of crisis decided to take the law into his own hands, can become a permanent leader of his people. 

Moses, therefore, asks God to name a new leader and goes to specify the qualifications he would like to find in the appointee:

Let the Lord, source of all the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them . . . 

According to Rashi, the 11th-century classical commentator, the implicit meaning of Moses' prayer to God is as follows: 

"Sovereign of the Universe, God of the spirits of all flesh, you know the minds of all men, and how the mind of one man differs from that of another. Appoint over them a leader who will be able to bear with the differing spirits of every one of your children." 

The true leader is not a single-minded fanatic, but a person able to tolerate all views. 

When God responds to Moses' prayer, naming Joshua as the future leader, he describes him as a "man in whom there is spirit." 

Here Rashi comments: "A man who knows how to stand up against the spirit of each one of them." As Rabbi Pinchas Peli points out, this is to teach us that to be tolerant  does not necessarily imply passivity or spinelessness. 

A good leader must know his own mind, he must be able to stand up for his views, but he also must be capable of changing his mind, of freeing himself of preconceived ideas. He must not be the type who declares: "My mind is made up -- don't confuse me with the facts."