Parashat Pinchas: Leading People One at a Time

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we learn of the transfer of power from Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) to Yehoshuah (Joshua).  Moshe has just been informed by Hashem that he will soon pass away.  In a humble and selfless response, Moshe asks Hashem to be sure the people will have another leader in his absence:

And Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying:  “Let Hashem, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of Hashem be not as sheep which have no shepherd.”  And Hashem said to Moses, “Take Yehoshuah the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hand upon him.”  (Bamidbar 27: 15-18)

I found the way that Moshe referred to Hashem (the G-d of the spirits of all flesh) to be puzzling.  Why does Moshe refer to “spirits” rather than just say “the G-d of all flesh?”  Furthermore, why does Moshe mention G-d’s sovereignty over all human kind at this particular moment?  Moshe could have referred to G-d as “Creator” or “Eternal” or any number of other platitudes.  This odd turn of phrase “the G-d of the spirits of all flesh” is mentioned in the midrash.

Jewish law:  If a person sees great multitudes of people he should say: “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, who knows their innermost secrets.” For, as their faces are not like each other, so are their temperaments not like each other, every individual having a temperament of his own.  . . .There is proof that this is the case [that every individual has a temperament of his own] from the request which Moshe made of the Holy One of Blessing, in the hour of his death. He says: “Sovereign of the Universe! The mind of every individual is revealed and known to You. The minds of Your children are not like one another.  Now that I am taking leave of them, appoint over them, I pray You, a leader who shall bear with each one of them as his temperament requires”;  [The fact that this is what Moshe requested] may be inferred from the fact that it [the Torah] says, “Let Hashem, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh appoint…”; it does not say the spirit [in the singular] but the spirits [in the plural].   (Bamidbar Rabbah)

For those who are interested in the bit of halacha (law) we learn at the beginning of this midrash, the bracha (blessing) mentioned is indeed the bracha that we are to say if we see 600,000 Jews together, which is a very rare occurrence.   The bracha itself is quite interesting—we are expressing our awe at the fact that G-d can know the true nature, or the “secrets” of each person, even though there are so many people.  This midrash is using the term “secrets” to refer to an individual’s temperament, and makes the case that each individual is unique.  In this sense, the midrash is reminding us that G-d cares for each of us as an individual.  This is easy for G-d who is able to look at 600,000 people and see the true nature of each. 

But what about us?  When we walk into a room with even 50 people—with even 20 people—we really do not know a thing about each person’s temperament.  We tend to think that others do—or should—feel the way we do about any number of things, whether it be what to do that evening for fun, or whether a comment someone made was hurtful or perfectly justified.  We generally have trouble seeing things from other peoples’ perspectives if they are quite different from us.  When others differ from us it is important that we try to emulate G-d—just as G-d cares for each of us as an individual, so should we also try to care for one another in this way.  We have to tolerate (to the best of our ability) the differences between us, and even cultivate compassion for people who we can’t really understand. 

Moshe clearly knew that as a leader, caring for each person as an individual was crucial.  He was able to do this, and he cared so much about bnai Yisrael (the children of Israel), that he begged G-d to appoint a new leader with that very quality.  He could have asked G-d to send a leader who was just, compassionate, fair, patient, or any other number of qualities.  The fact that (according to this midrash) he asked HaShem for one who would understand and care for each person based on their individuality is quite remarkable.  Almost all of us are leaders in one way or another—even if it is just as a leader in our family, a leader for our children.  As we welcome Shabbat, I invite you join me in reflecting on how we can better lead and relate to everyone around us by cultivating understanding and compassion.  Shabbat Shalom.