Pinchas: Strong Spirits

July 13, 2012 at 10:41 am | Posted in Pinchas | Leave a comment

Most societies have procedures for determining who inherits property. (This week’s Torah portion includes a ruling that daughters can inherit when the deceased has no sons).  But when leaders of people die or retire, who replaces them?

Earlier in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar the first high priest, Aaron, dies and is succeeded by his son Elazar.  Will Elazar’s son Pinchas become the high priest someday?  This week’s portion, Pinchas, opens with God granting Pinchas’ that honor, even though he murdered two people he caught fornicating in the sacred Tent of Meeting. God explains that Pinchas’s act was necessary to preserve the Israelite people.

Miriam also dies in Numbers, but she is harder to replace.  According to the Torah, the people  manage without another strong female leader until the prophetess Devorah takes charge in the book of Judges/Shoftim.

Moses knows he will die before the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, and at this point in the Torah, the “promised land” is right across the Jordan River from the Israelite encampment.  Who will replace Moses?

Nobody else is capable of having such frequent, direct, long, and personal conversations with God. Nobody can replace Moses as a prophet.  Yet someone must replace him as the leader and ruler of the people as they take over the land of Canaan.  Moses’ own two sons dropped out of the Torah early in the book of Exodus/Shemot; presumably they either returned to their Midianite grandfather’s home, or else accompanied the Israelites for 40 years without doing anything worth mentioning.  Moses’ nephews Elazar and Itamar are disqualified for a different reason; God has made it clear that the  priesthood must be separate from the government.

So Moses spoke to God, saying: May God, the god of the spirits (ruchot) of all flesh, appoint a man over the community, who will go out before them and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out and who will bring them in, so the community will not be like a flock without a shepherd. (Numbers/Bemidbar 27:15-17)

ruach (plural ruchot) = spirit, wind, mood, driving impulse, motivation

The phrase  god of the spirits of all flesh is unusual; it occurs only twice in the whole Torah.  The other appearance is earlier in the book of Numbers, when Korach leads a revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron. God tells the two of them to step aside while the rest of the community is consumed. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces (the best position for addressing God), and say:

God, the god of the spirits of all flesh! Is it that one man sins, and You become angry at the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)

They assume God can distinguish between the motivation of Korach, who talks about justice but wants personal power, and the motivation of the naive Israelites who follow along with him. Indeed, the “god of the spirits of all flesh” tells everyone else to step back, and destroys only the households of Korach and the other two ringleaders, plus the 250 men who deliberately usurp the priestly role of offering incense.

Moses’ successor must not be like Korach, bent on self-aggrandizement. But what kind of personality should the new leader have?  When Moses asks God to choose someone, he once again refers to the god of the spirits of all flesh, a reminder that God knows everyone’s inner motivations.

Rashi (11-century rabbinic commentator Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that Moses said: “Master of the World! The personality of each individual is revealed before You; they do not resemble each other.  Appoint a leader who can put up with each individual according to his personality.’’

It seems that Moses’ successor must, like God,  understand the ruach, the inner spirit, of every person he governs.  He cannot succeed by simply following all the laws God gave to Moses; he must be able to adapt the rules to different situations and individual needs as they emerge.

So God said to Moses: Take for yourself Joshua, son of Nun, a man who has spirit (ruach) in him, and lay your hand upon him.  (Numbers 27:18)

The new leader’s own personality must include not only a god-like understanding of other humans, but also a spirit of holiness, a connection with God. The Torah identifies some people as being filled, or seized, by ruach ha-elohim, “the spirit of God”. People in this condition are so aware of the numinous that (unless they have the mind of an Abraham or a Moses) they are overcome with ecstasy. Moses does not dance, or speak in tongues, but the spirit of God does become visible in his face: his skin glows so brightly that he wears a veil, removing it only when he speaks with God or tells the people what God said.

Moses’ successor must also have some of this holy spirit, though a glowing face is not required. Joshua is the obvious candidate.  He has been Moses’ faithful attendant ever since he led the Israelites in their first successful battle. He lived in Moses’ tent during the time when it was the Tent of Meeting where Moses and God conversed, and he sometimes accompanied Moses halfway up Mount Sinai. After 40 years of serving Moses, Joshua might be considered an apprentice who is ready to become a master.

Does he have some measure of “holy spirit” in him because of Moses’ influence all those years?  Or did Moses choose him as an attendant in the first place because he saw Joshua already had that spirit? Either way, Joshua meets the requirements.

Nevertheless, Joshua is not another Moses; he is merely the best candidate available for the job. No human being can really be replaced. And yet members of a community can move ahead under a different leader with a different spirit, and remain committed to their basic mission; to each other; and to the divine spirit that dwells among and within them.

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