Parashat Pinchas, 2020

Special Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah

Shabbat Shalom,

I know you have all been through some tough times, but I am very happy you are here, even if you’re with me online.

My parsha is Pinchas, in the book of Bamidbar. Simply, it is about sacrifice and leadership. But before I say more, you’re probably wondering, “Who is this Pinchas and why should we care?”

Let me give you some backstory: At that time of Pinchas, people were wildly worshipping other gods, which infuriated the God of Israel; so God took vengeance and began to kill people with a plague. Moses then told the people that if they were loyal, they must kill the people who are worshipping other gods, but the people didn’t follow Moses’ command and just stood there crying, doing nothing at all. Pinchas, though, decided to take action, in a zealous way, so he took his spear and killed 2 of the wild worshippers. God then ended the plague.

Pinchas could have been hurt, but on behalf of God he chose to take an extreme action. God says Pinchas was a passionate zealot, and made him and all his future generations priests.

The plague that Pinchas stopped did still kill many people, so God told Moses to take a census to see how many people were left in each tribe in order to divide up the land that God was giving them. But a dilemma developed: usually the oldest son of a father inherits the land, but a man named Zelophehad only had daughters, no sons. The daughters felt they deserve to inherit their father’s land, so they spoke up and went to Moses, and Moses asked God if this was allowed, and God said that in the case of a family with no sons, the daughters could inherit their share of the land.

Moses knew he was not going to be able to lead the people to the land and that he needed a new leader to replace him. He decided that the leader should be someone who would care for the people and show them what to do, so he appointed Joshua, his trusted assistant. Joshua was faithful and trusted God to guide him and show him how to shepherd the people, like Moses did.

This parsha shows us three main kinds of leadership: Pinchas, a zealot who chose to take an extreme action, and risked his life to do something he thought was right and to save people from the plague. Moses and Joshua were shepherds, a different kind of leader. They watched over the people, showing them the way and keeping them safe. They would try to warn the people about what would prevent disaster, and encouraged them to “walk in God’s ways”. The Zelophehad daughters were similar to social activists. They saw unfairness in the rules and took action to right a wrong but in a peaceful manner, requesting a change in the laws so daughters also could inherit land.

So this story shows us three types of leadership back then, but what about today? Can we find examples of these types of leaders during what is happening now? During quarantine and coronavirus, as well as social unrest, everyone has a duty to be a leader, to think about doing the right thing that benefits most people.

Take Pinchas, the zealot who used violence to prevent God from killing more people. Do we need leaders to be zealots? Is it ever ok for leaders to take actions where a few people die in order to save many? Should leaders like this be rewarded?

In some rare cases, extreme leaders, like Pinchas might be needed. But we cannot let leaders like Pinchas act blindly or allow leaders to pretend to act in his name. Leaders must always carefully think about all the costs – what will prevent a disaster, such as a pandemic, a war or mass destruction, above all else we must value life. Some people, such as doctors and nurses do important, very risky work to keep others safe. They often risk their own lives and sometimes the lives of their families in order to save many. They’re not doing the exact same thing as Pinchas, but, like Pinchas, they still making sacrifices and intending for their work to be for the good of many people and sometimes at the risk of a few.

Even people who aren’t doctors and nurses can make sacrifices and lead in risky ways – without going as far as Pinchas. There are people who deliver packages, food, healthcare, and provide communities with other needs, risking their ​own health to help many. We need to appreciate everyone who helps in a manner that goes beyond their share, beyond just caring for themselves. Sacrifice is needed in desperate or extreme times.

Another kind of leader who goes beyond doing just their share, is a social activist like the daughters of Zelophehad. This leadership is more public, helping to create a better, more equal society. There has always been social inequality throughout human history, and there are people who have stood up for change to bring about equality. These types of leaders must be celebrated. The recent Black Lives Matter movement is an important continuation of work that began during the civil rights era. Let’s take a leader like Medgar Evers. He was the first state field secretary of the NAACP, who organized mass voter-registration efforts, economic boycotts, as well as investigated crimes perpetrated against black people. To achieve racial equality, we need more people like Medgar Evers who will actively stand up, demand change, and do work to create racial equality.

Finally, there are leaders like Moses and Joshua, the shepherds. Shepherds are the kind of people who watch over and look out for others, trying to guide people in the right direction before something bad happens. There are leaders in our own community who are shepherds, such as teachers who do more than just educate on a subject but who guide their students in a way that looks out for their future and the needs of others. There are parents who show us how to make choices in life that will benefit our community, our society, and our world.

Political leaders, ideally, we want them to listen to the people they serve, and find the best ways to meet not just individual needs or the needs of a small group, but to think about the greater good – what is good for a community, for a nation and for the planet.

Anyone can be a leader, but it does take a special kind of person to be a good one- one that looks out for something greater. Fair-minded leaders strive to set a good example AND do what it takes to protect others, like wearing a mask to both protect other people and to encourage others to follow. They don’t just speak out when something isn’t right or fair, but they set a good example, intervene to prevent unfairness or take steps to prevent people from getting hurt in the future. If a kid is being bullied for having a disability, a good leader would intervene or call for help to stop the bullying and then also teach others to do the same to prevent future bullying.

There are other qualities that would make a leader even better. Bravery would help a leader stand up for the kid who was being bullied. Confidence would make it easier to reach out and help others. There are some human qualities that would help a leader find peaceful solutions too, such as humility or compassion. While these traits are not in everyone, a leader can still exist without them. A lot of the time people mistakenly think leaders are people who have a big title, a loud voice, or an important job, but you don’t have to. Being a leader can include taking charge of simple things like organizing and driving a car pool, or helping a needy neighbor during quarantine go out and get groceries. Step by step, like climbing a mountain, leadership is built.

Leadership qualities are in most everyone, and there are times when I have been required to be a leader when I really did not want to, such as my situation here. With all honesty, I did not want to be the first quarantine (or on-line) bar mitzvah of our congregation. I have felt the pressure to set a good standard, and I hope I am doing that.

There are also times when I wanted to be a leader, but I did not have the chance. One time at swim practice there was a new exercise we were learning, and I was able to quickly figure out how do it, while others were confused, but my coach chose someone else to demonstrate it to the team. I know this is a minor example of leadership, but I occasionally enjoy teaching or showing people something that I know how to do well.

The most important leadership trait, though, seems to be a genuine willingness to try and to think about what benefits the greater good. How can you benefit not just yourself but people in your community?

When you have the chance to become a leader, seize it. Grab hold of the opportunity to do what will be helpful. There is currently a leadership void on our planet, and we all need to fill it. I’ll be looking for my opportunities. Will you?

Shabbat Shalom.