Pinchas: Changing of the Watch

Moses spoke to the Lord saying, “Let the Lord, Source of the breath 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.” (B’midbar 27:15-17.)

Standing at the summit,
an upright lonely figure gazes at the land,
its nearness unbearably alluring, where
countless hues of rolling hills
converge on pristine sky.

He seems to stare forever
at the quilt of light and dark,
then turns away and softly asks
that God will seek a shepherd
who will bear with all the people
and tend this sundry flock.


Rashi remarks, “This verse tells the praise of righteous men who at the hour of their departure from the world abandon all thoughts of their own wants and think only of the wants of the community.” He casts further light on Moses’ care for his people once he would no longer be there to lead them. Rashi cites a Midrash noting that when Moses addresses God, “Source of the breath of all flesh” the Hebrew word translated for breath here is actually in the plural, “ruchot” and this is understood to mean “souls”. The Rabbis derive from this that just as each person’s face is different, so is his disposition. Moses was asking that God, Who knows how different each person is from another, should appoint a leader who will bear with each person according to his disposition. This Midrash mentions the blessing enacted by the Rabbis to be recited when seeing a crowd of Jews that exceeds 600,000, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, wise in secrets.” This alludes to God’s understanding of the myriad variety within humanity. Moses, the Midrash implies, is pleading for a successor who can encompass as much of this diversity as humanly possible.
In a commentary on Parashat Pinchas from 2009, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5572 Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson recalls that when he started his career as a pulpit rabbi, he would look over the crowd and see a group, but over the years he came to know his congregants as individuals. Having accompanied them through a whole spectrum of life experiences, the initial sea of faces metamorphosed into hundreds of individuals, each with a complex gamut of strengths and weaknesses.
Rabbi Shavit Artson comments, “Moses prepares to transfer leadership to a new generation. He is concerned on behalf of his people that the new leader should not seek to deny the individuality of each member of the community, imposing a bland homogeneity on all. Instead, Moses insists that the legitimate claims of the community must accommodate and celebrate individual expression and difference.”
In his book, Moses as Political Leader, Aaron Wildavsky devotes a chapter to addressing why Moses does not get to the Promised Land. In the section entitled “Renunciation” he says, “Only the greatest leader is able to inculcate principles so profound that other people can successfully implement them well into the future. God is trying to teach Moses that the greater accomplishment is to have done this without going into Canaan. Moses is now an old man. Physical death can not be of great importance to him. The hard thing for Moses is not death, but rather his absence at the culmination of all his plans…”
Wildavsky continues, “In his final phase of leadership, Moses includes provisions to help future leaders avoid the danger to which he almost succumbed. Having learned that no leader is indispensable, Moses relinquishes his own role, while simultaneously guaranteeing that the people will not be left “as sheep without a shepherd” (Num. 27:17).”
He concludes the section, “Moses eventually understands that the chief virtue in leaders is to make themselves unnecessary. To be a “nursing father” – knowing that the child may die, will probably rebel, and must be allowed to make history on its own – is the essence of Mosaic leadership. Teaching that leads to learning that creating new teachers is a circular process of renewal, not a linear model of leadership.”

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