Moses turned to the Almighty and requested that He appoint a leader for the Jewish people, since Moses would soon not be with them. God had previously told him he would not enter the promised land. In Parshat Chukat we read the account of Moses’ transgression, resulting in the decree that he would not be able to enter. Why did Moses wait until now to ask for a replacement?
The Kotzk Rebbe explained that Moses was not originally at a loss for a candidate. As soon as he learnt that neither he nor Aaron would enter the land, Moses assumed that the future leader of the Jews would be Pinchas.
As we see from the role he played at the end of Parashat Balak, Pinchas’ ability to lead and make decisions on the spur of the moment was phenomenal. He took action alone, publicly, and responsibly, and saved the people from God’s wrath. Moses knew him well, he was his great-nephew, and knew of his abilities well in advance.
However, when Pinchas acted as he did, Moses understood he could not be a leader. While God endorsed Pinchas’ behaviour, it was not an act of leadership. There is a place, and even the necessity, for zealots in the community; extreme circumstances demand extreme responses. But zealots cannot be leaders and Moses turned to God to ask for a replacement. He asked that the people not be “as sheep that have no shepherd”, because real leadership is about being a shepherd, not a saviour.
- Sam Taylor is the community rabbi of Western Marble Arch Synagogue