One of the classic questions in Torah study is why the saga of Pinchas & his execution of Zimri & Cozbi (the Cozbi show?!) is stretched over 2 parshiyot. It began at the end of Parshat Balak but does not end until this week’s sedra. Why? It seems clumsy that we have to wait a week to find out what Pinchas’ fate will be. More on this in a moment.
Parshat Pinchas is a crossroad in Jewish history. Moshe has already been told that he will not make the transition into Eretz Yisrael & so – as a true leader who loves his people – he is determined to identify a capable successor who will carry on his holy task. But who will this be?
Korach thought he would be the choice but he, well, "fell out of favor." So who is left? Moshe naturally would like his own son to take over – after all, Moshe is also a king, & kings create dynasties – but Hashem vetoes that. Next on the list is Pinchas. He has good credentials: he is descended from Levi, Moshe’s own shevet; he is Kohen Gadol; he is fiercely loyal to G-d, who gives him a strong vote of confidence and proclaims: "Behold I give him Briti Shalom – My covenant of Peace."
But Moshe is troubled by Pinchas’ anger, righteous as it may be. Moshe himself has forfeited his position in part because, after 40 years of dealing with a very, very challenging people, his temper has been brought to the boiling point. And so, in a not-so-subtle hint, when asking Hashem for a successor, he refers to G-d as "Elohei Ha-Ruchot, the G-d of Spirits, or Moods." Rashi explains that this unusual name refers to one who will "accept the different temperments & personalities of the people, one who will patiently tolerate varying opinions within the community."
And he adds: "One who will ‘go out & come in’ before them." That is, one who will go out to battle leading the troops – thus putting his own life at risk, indicating his quality of m’sirat nefesh, self-sacrifice – as well as one who will prepare the way for the nation to enter into the land & prosper, indicating his sense of vision & foresight.
In carefully couched language, Moshe is saying to Hashem that as bold & forthright as Pinchas’ act was – indeed, he saved the people from a much deadlier plague – at the end of the day, that propensity for raging jealousy & zealotry is a double-edged sword that may very well end up doing as much harm as good to the nation.
And so the final candidate, Yehoshua, who demonstrated his quality of tolerance by waiting patiently & faithfully for almost half a century in loyal service to Moshe, is chosen to be at the helm. And that is essentially why Pinchas needs to be featured in this sedra as well, the sedra where the selection of a new leadership will occur.
What does all this mean to us? Well, it just so happens that we in Israel will also soon be voting for new leaders. Hmm….