July 9, 2020
Parshat Pinchas – Leading with Love
As Moshe climbs to the top of Mt. Abarim to view the land he will not be allowed to enter, he turns toward God in concern for the community that will continue without him, praying: “Let the Holy One, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a leader for this community, one who will go out before them… so that they will not be like a flock with no shepherd.”
The Torah calls God by many names, revealing the many ways in which God was experienced, suggesting different facets or faces of divinity that might be turned in the human direction to answer to the needs of a given moment. Still, the epithet “God of the spirits of all flesh” is unusual and sparks the imaginations of our great commentators. As he thinks toward a continuity of leadership, why does Moshe call upon this particular face of God – the God who attends to the animating principle of flesh?
Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev teaches that Moshe is praying for a leader who will be sensitive to the human – fleshly – condition. To paraphrase, Moshe says: “Just as You, God, always champion human beings, even though we are not consistently loyal to you, so, appoint a leader who will, likewise, always defend the People, leading with benevolence.” Surely, we become absorbed in our personal needs and desires, forgetting our service, the mission to better our world. But our fleshly preoccupations are part of what it is to be human, rather than angelic. Moses says that God knows this. But he worries that not all human leaders are so tolerant. And he entreats God to appoint an unconditionally loving leader to replace him, someone who understands the People’s failings, meeting them just where they are.
Moshe prays to hand his mantle on to a leader who will “go out before” the community, speaking on their behalf, advancing the holiness of their very human frailty, so that they will not be “as sheep without a shepherd.” The plea is to ensure a sense of safety for this imperfect People. The plea is for continued permission to be whole, and real, sometimes reverent and sometimes not, but all of our human impulses held as equally rooted in holiness, all of our own faces and facets respected by our God and, by God’s example, lovingly embraced by our human leaders.
If this is a standard God teaches human leaders, we can widen the circle of inspiration by increasing our practice of unconditional love, stepping into leadership of the new waves of revolutionary love and empathy-as-activism that we see growing in our troubled world right now. Can we grow our love for messily imperfect people, acknowledging, as Moshe acknowledges, that we all vacillate between remembering that we were created to emancipate the holy sparks hidden in plain sight, and behaving selfishly – forgetting, but then, remembering again – as humans are wont to do.
The lesson of Pinchas is one more Torah teaching in building a society of flourishing humans: If we lead with love, folks will not feel afraid. And feeling safe, seen, and appreciated, perhaps we’ll all be more kind. A giant step toward perfecting our world.