Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen, turned
back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel...
Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My covenant of
In a shocking display of insolence, a Jew (Zimri ben Salu) brought an
idolatress (Kozbi bas Tzur) directly to Moshe and the elders at the
entrance to the Ohel Moed and sinned in public view. No one, not
even Moshe, knew what to do. They wept helplessly. No one
remembered the law - no one, that is, except Pinchas.
He approached Moshe. "Didn't you teach us," Pinchas asked, "that
one who does such, a zealous one may slay him?!"
"Indeed!" replied Moshe. "Since you have remembered the law - you
carry out the deed!"
Because of his zealousness, Pinchas was given an unprecedented
reward: He was allowed entrance into the exclusive family of the
Kohanim, the holy priests who performed the services in the Mishkan
(Tabernacle) and later in the Mikdash (Holy Temple).
Why was Moshe so insistent that Pinchas himself carry out the deed?
Let us first examine Moshe's leadership, in order to understand
exactly what type of leadership environment existed that allowed
Pinchas to take such a bold step in the face of Moshe's silence.
Once upon a time - indeed for thousands of years - the ultimate in
leadership was seen as absolute authoritarianism. Complete and total
dictatorship. The more powerful and dominant the leader, the greater
his leadership was.
It is only in recent "enlightened" times that we have come to the
realization that abusive power and control, while giving the impression
of supreme authority, in fact erode the trust and love necessary for
leadership to be truly effective, and stifle the creativity which can allow
one to reach one's true potential.
Take for example the corporate environment. In previous generations,
it had been thought that the most effective way to run a company
was with a staunch, unyielding hand. The tighter the ship, the more
productive and cost-efficient the bottom line. It is only recently that
the corporate world has begun to understand that by increasing the
independence and authority given employees, within a framework, the
"bottom line" too can be increased.
"Empowerment" is a buzz-word among today's motivational
psychologists. The more "empowered" we allow others to feel, the
greater their interest becomes in doing the best they can do. In a
dictatorial environment, an employee may very well do his work
efficiently and carefully, but it is done so out of fear and
consternation. By contrast, in an environment of "empowerment" and
cooperation, employees go beyond simply following orders and doing
what they're told; they begin to take an interest in finding new
solutions and innovative methods, sometimes coming up with bold
and successful ideas that would never have occurred to their
Any rebbe or teacher can attest to the fact that while lecturing and
dictation may be the easiest and most efficient way to keep an unruly
bunch of pre-teens quiet and subdued, the greatest learning takes
place when children actively participate in the subject material. The
more students are made to feel that their input is necessary and
important, the greater an interest they take. By "empowering" children
with a degree of self-authority - of course with the guidance of their
rebbes, teachers, or parents - we give them the potential for maximum
self-growth and learning.
What type of leader was Moshe? Was he approachable, or was his
dictatorship absolute? The suggestions of Yisro (Moshe's father-in-law,
see beginning of Parshas Yisro) and the daughters of Tzlofchad (see
this week's parsha 27:1-5) suggest that Moshe was exceptionally
approachable and open to the suggestions of others. I would suggest
that such an attitude was extremely unusual for a leader in those
times. Moshe did not see it as a personal weakness if others became
involved. Perhaps, to the contrary, he realized that by being
approachable and accessible to his fledgling nation, he was
empowering them to achieve to the maximum of their own potential.
"I alone can not carry this entire nation - it is too difficult for me! And
if this is how You deal with me, then kill me now! (Bamidbar 11:14)"
In parshas Be-halosecha, Moshe pleads with Hashem for help with
the leadership of the Jews. But why did he season his entreaty with
the exaggerative, "And if not - kill me!"? Was Moshe, G-d forbid,
throwing a temper-tantrum? Was he confrontationally throwing down
the gauntlet - saying that "either it's his way or no way?"
Seforno understands this passage as follows. Moshe felt his
leadership was inherently weakened as a result of his carrying the
entire burden. While not directly questioning Hashem's wisdom in
doing so, Moshe understood that perhaps the reason Hashem had
placed him in such a position was out of regard for Moshe; that it
would in some way be disrespectful to Moshe to allow others to play
a role in the leadership.
To dispel this notion, Moshe says to Hashem, "I can no longer carry
the burden of this nation alone! I feel that not only is my influence
over Bnei Yisrael not stronger as a result, it is weaker. And ultimately,
that means that I am doing a second-class job of giving over Your
message to them. Now, if this is how You deal with me - i.e. if you
are doing so out of regard for my feelings, I understand. However, I
still feel that I will be a stronger and more influential leader when I
share my power with others. If, in Your eyes, this is impossible, then
rather kill me now, and let someone else take over who is capable
of leading the nation with the help of others, instead of dictating to
Instead of abusing the power given to him by Hashem, Moshe sought
to share that power with others, ultimately strengthening not only
them, but also himself. Only in such an environment - one which
encouraged and promoted the input and suggestions of others - could
a Pinchas have come forth and "taken the law into his own hands."
In an oppressive, dictatorial atmosphere, would it not be viewed as
great audacity and nerve for Pinchas to even suggest an alternative
course of action in the face of Moshe's silence? It was only because
Moshe, time and again, had impressed upon the nation the
importance of their input and suggestions, that it even occurred to
Pinchas to put forth his case, and ultimately carry out the deed,
thereby stopping the burgeoning plague.
Perhaps this is why Moshe insisted that, "since you made the
suggestion - you carry out the deed." What it has taken us until this
very generation to understand, Moshe knew more than three
thousand years ago; the more others become involved, the stronger
leadership becomes. Pinchas - you carry out the deed, so that
everyone may know that it was your suggestion, and not mine, that
made the day.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.