Parashat Pinhas

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Charles Savenor
Associate Dean,
JTS Rabbinical School

The Book of Numbers details the beginning of the end for the Jews that left Egypt. Every parashah in this book gives us a painful glimpse into a generation that remains enslaved on many levels—spiritually, culturally, and psychologically—even after the Exodus and its accompanying miracles. God could take the Israelites out of Egypt, but God could not take Egypt out of these people.

Moses, their faithful leader, is regretfully not immune from this phenomenon. After the episode with the rock, Moses will not be allowed to lead the next generation into Israel. His forced “retirement” creates a power vacuum that becomes more ominous with every passing day as the next generation of Israelites prepares to cross the Jordan River.

Our ancestors and we, as readers today, wait to find out who will lead the people into the future. Parashat Pinhas opens with praise and blessing being showered on Pinhas, who at the end of last week’s Torah portion became a hero by taking the law into his own hands and acting zealously in the name of God’s law. The dramatic flow of events associated with Pinhas increases the urgency of identifying the next leader of Israel.

Realizing that the uncertainty of succession is becoming a distraction, Moses takes bold action and does the unthinkable. He commands God to appoint his successor now. One may even imagine that Moses’ audacity is inspired by Pinhas, the portion’s eponymous character. This strongly-worded request and God’s response read as follows:

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ”Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and who shall come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in; so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” And the Lord answered Moses, ”Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him.” (Numbers 27:15-18; Etz Hayim translation)

Moses’ bold request sounds as much like a job description for a tour director as it does a spiritual and military leader. From his forty years of leading the people in the desert, Moses understands that his successor will require the skills to negotiate the conquest and settlement of the land involving an arduous, long road with unexpected bumps and detours along the way.

What seems peculiar in this exchange is not only the way Moses addresses God as, “source of the breath of all flesh,” but also how God describes Joshua as “an inspired man.” The perplexing parallelism between these two phrases becomes more apparent when we look at them in the original Hebrew. The former is, Elohei ha-ruhot lekol basar, which translates literally as “the God of the spirits of all flesh.” The latter, ish asher ruah bo, means “a man who has spirit within.”

That the Hebrew reveals a direct link between both Moses’ and God’s usage of ruah beckons us to explore this single word’s significance. What does the inclusion of ruah teach us about the qualifications of spiritual leadership?

Of all the commentators, Rashi, our foremost Torah commentator, seems most troubled by Elohei ha-ruhot lekol basar, the God of the spirits of all flesh. Rashi asserts that the aforementioned spirits refer to the countless personalities found within a community and the enormous challenge of balancing the needs of the individual with those of the masses. Commenting later on, ish asher ruah bo, Rashi links his earlier explanation when he writes: “Just as you asked, that he [Joshua] should be able to navigate according to the spirit [or personality] of each and every individual.”

The fifteenth-century Italian commentator, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, understands “a man in whom there is spirit” not in regards to dealing with humanity, but rather God. He opines that this spirit signifies that the new leader will be “prepared to receive the light of the living King’s countenance.” In other words, God’s teaching can only be received by one ready and attuned to the message. Sforno’s comments transcend the discussion about the transition of spiritual leadership and shed light upon the cornerstone of a life of faith.

The disagreement between these luminaries zeroes in on the ambiguity of these perplexing expressions both utilizing the word ruah. Ultimately we wonder whether ruah modifies humanity or God? Does Moses want his successor to be prepared for the challenges of group work or attuned to the overwhelming, awe-inspiring experience of serving God?

The answer, simply put, is both. We see that Moses addresses this very point when in his original appeal, Elohei ha-ruhot lekol basar, he speaks of spirit in the plural. His years at the helm of the Israelite community teach Moses that God and humanity’s spirits are intrinsically linked to one other.

By mentioning the word ruah, Moses reminds humanity of God’s role as creator. This one word transports us back to the dawn of the creation when “V’ruah Elohim merahefet al p’nei ha’mayim,” meaning that “the spirit of God was sweeping over the water” (Genesis 1:2).

By including ruah, Moses courageously underscores for the Almighty the importance of God’s teaching, love and attention to Israel and humanity. It was only through divine assistance that Israel could overcome their mi-kotzer ruah, “stunted spirits” (Exodus 6:9). As the ultimate redeemer, God rehabilitated these crushed spirits and allowed them to begin again anew.

By specifically utilizing the word ruah, Moses commemorates the covenantal relationship between God, Israel, and the world.

Moses appeals to God to appoint a new leader over Israel who is attuned not only to God’s power and authority but also to the needs and aspirations of Israel and humanity. These criteria are as relevant today as they were when our ancestors prepared to enter the Promised Land.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Charlie Savenor


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.