Jewish Journal


July 4, 2010

Do Zealots make Good Jewish Leaders?  -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner


This past week we read in the Torah of Pinchus, someone who stands up to fulfill what is written in Pirkey Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers), “In a place where there is no one, stand up and be someone”.  He is the classic zealot for God.  Several paragraphs latter when God tells Moses that Moses will die, Moses asks God to choose someone as a new leader.  The obvious question is why not Pinchus?  The obvious answer is that Pinchus is a zealot and while God gave Pinchas His covenant of peace, he is not fitting for Jewish leadership. 

In asking God to appoint a leader Moses calls God a name with which he has not been referred to before.  “God of the spirits of all flesh (creatures).”  Rashi comments, God of “ruchot” spirits of all flesh- “Appoint someone who can tolerate the individual spirits, personalities, of each of your people.”  “So that your people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” 

Moses feels a good leader for the Jewish people is one that is a shepherd, knows each as an individual and is willing to tolerate each individual’s personality.  Perhaps like Aaron, who does not oppose the Jewish peoples’ desire to make the golden calf but goes with their request trying along the way to curb their idolatrous desire toward something better.  The opposite perhaps of Pinchus, who stands up and attacks when wrong is being perpetrated.

God tells Moses to pick Yehoshuah, a man who, “has the spirit in him.”  Rashi comments here that the spirit referred to is the ability to stand in opposition to the ruach, the spirit and personality, of the people when he must.  Yehoshuah of course is neither Pinchas nor Aaron, neither one who only tolerates the desires of the people nor one who trounces them.  Thus he is a good Jewish leader.  Joshuah like Moses, is a balanced leader who is both shepherd and admonisher, who can tolerate the people’s ruach and also stand against it. 

We live in world where Pinchus seems to have won.  Whether Muslim zealots who blow themselves up, Christian zealots who reneg on the kindness and understanding of Vatican II, or Jewish zealots (lihavdil) who revoke sincere peoples conversions, today it is the extremists who hold the day and the media.  May we merit that the God of the, “spirits of all creatures,” bring us leaders well balanced like Moses and Yehoshua.

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