Toward Shabbat: Pinhas

The Lord said to Moses, “Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was…

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 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.” (Numbers 27: 12-13, 15-17)

In these few verses, we learn that the long period of Moses’ leadership has come to a close. God reminds Moses that he will not lead the people into the land after many years of trial and wandering. The job of leadership has changed, and the job-holder must, too, change. Instead, Moses (like Aaron and Miriam in last week’s parashiyot) will die in the wilderness, looking out over his unfinished work. The image of Moses staring into the land, with its promises and uncertainties, is among the most moving scenes described in the Torah. 

Moses’ journey affirms a truth that is simultaneously painful and hopeful: 

Life moves forward and, with it, new needs and opportunities present themselves.

New problems become visible, and new solutions are urgently required. 

Yesterday’s truth quickly feels like today’s platitudes. 

Today’s leaders may learn that the urgency of tomorrow is more than they can carry. 

The global pandemic—four months old—and our country’s ingrained racism—400 years old—have together exposed the frailty and dysfunction of our society. Our healthcare “system”, our hyper-capitalist economy, our capacity to hold fair elections, our government’s responsibility to its people, the role of our police forces, the promise of “liberty and justice for all”—these are under scrutiny and for good reason. Activists and ordinary people alike are asking for something different from our status quo and from the leaders who have protected it: something more just, more fair, and more hopeful. 

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are staring into an uncertain and imperfect future, and many of us working for and praying for change. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are desperate for the outcomes that we believe we were promised: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all those who dwell in our midst. And, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we may have to shift our perceptions of who can lead and of what leadership looks like. 

Just prior to the verses cited above, a group of activists, the daughters of Zelophechad—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—approached Moses to demand that their father’s assets be transferred to them, and not outside of their clan. Out of their lived experience and their courage to be activists came greater justice for women in the laws of inheritance. 

FIfteen-year-old Zee Thomas from Nashville, TN, led the first Black Lives Matter protests in her city—a march of 10,000 people—just two days after George Floyd’s murder. In an interview with the New York Times, Thomas said, “After the protest, I really couldn’t sleep at all. I was on Twitter, as usual. And there was this one tweet from a mother. And I remember it so clearly, because I started crying. She said ‘I’m happy that my daughter will grow up in a world that these young girls will change.’ And that’s a moment where I felt really powerful, because my main goal, as a person and as an upcoming activist, is to make sure that people know that things will change. Eventually.’”

There is a cry for justice that is bigger than any one leader, no matter his or her greatness. As we witness the generational shifts of leadership in our parashiyot, may we hold the optimism that new ideas, new energy, and new faces will carry us forward in these days, as well. May we merit to be among those leaders, and to help bring about the new world that is desperate to be born.

Joanna Samuels headshot

Written By Joanna Samuels

A graduate of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Joanna Samuels serves as the Executive Director of Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center.  She, her husband, Jerem...