Parashat Pinchas

By Hayley Siegel

This week’s parashah, Pinchas commences with a description of Pinchas’ reception of the unique brit shalom (a covenant of peace) and a priestly role from God. And yet, despite the fact that Pinchas receives these accolades and the entire parashah bears his name, we witness the momentous occasion when the tribe’s leadership is transferred instead from Moses to Joshua at the end of the parashah. If we want to discover why Joshua ended up succeeding Moses, we need to gain more insight into these men’s personalities and analyze their different styles of leadership.

In order for us to understand Pinchas, we need to backtrack for a bit to last week’s parashah, Balak. As our text describes, God afflicts the Israelites with a plague after they perform idolatry and illicit sexual dalliances with the Moabite people at Shittim. As the entire tribe is wallowing in their sorry state, Zimri, an Israelite, brings his new companion, a Midianite woman named Cozbi, before everyone. Traditional interpretation suggests that Zimri was intending to have forbidden sexual intercourse with his new consort, and of course, this action would further exacerbate God’s wrath against the people. Before any kind of public display of affection can take place, Pinchas kills Zimri and Cozbi by spearing them in their bellies. Pinchas’ zealous pursuit of what he deemed to be “justice” for the tribe stems the outbreak of the plague. Even though a modern reader would be easily disturbed by Pinchas’ actions, our parashah notes that he is instead rewarded by God with the honors of a brit shalom (a covenant of peace) and a priestly role.

Our next candidate, Joshua, also isn’t fully fleshed out in this week’s parashah. We actually have to return to the previous parashah of Shelach Lecha to compare Joshua with Pinchas. In parashat Shelach Lecha, Joshua, along with eleven other spies, was dispatched by Moses to survey the Promised Land of Canaan and its inhabitants. After the spies return from their journey and recount their intelligence about the gigantic proportions of Canaan’s people, the entire tribe goes into panic mode. The community, plagued with doubt and insecurity about the negative reports of the spies, hits rock bottom. Expressing that they have no chance to overcome the gigantic inhabitants, they disturbingly propose a return to Egypt. After witnessing his brethren’s downward descent, Joshua, along with Caleb, convey their sadness and express compassionate concern for everyone’s well being by rending their clothes in mourning. While Joshua doesn’t dismiss the people’s fears, he attempts to rally the community with a more balanced and optimistic perspective about their prospects in the new land. He proclaims that they have nothing to fear because God will guide and protect them along the way. While Joshua’s view doesn’t prevail, it’s clear that a Higher Power has taken notice.

Now that we have surveyed Pinchas and Joshua, we can perhaps understand why Joshua was invested as the tribe’s next leader. As readers of the Book of Joshua (which documents Joshua’s leadership of the tribe) know all too well, Joshua certainly had the ability to turn on his physical “Pinchas” side when combating the Canaanites. However, as we saw in his rending of clothes, Joshua could empathize with the sharpest emotions of his people without letting it affect his judgment.

On this Shabbat, may we take the time to think about what leadership means to us, what kind of unique qualities or experiences set us apart as leaders, and perhaps, what individual steps we need to take to become better leaders for our communities and our families.

Hayley Siegel is a rabbinical student at AJR.