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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Behold! I give my covenant of peace. (25:12)

This is the first time Hashem validates the act of taking another person's life. Pinchas acted with true zealousness. Every fiber of his body remained true to the ideal of serving Hashem. He did not murder; he carried out the halachah of kanaim pogin bo, "a zealous one may slay him." Let us analyze his actions and his motivations. Rather than ceasing to curse the Jews, Bilaam devised a foolproof method for turning the Jews away from Hashem. Indeed, Bilaam had the patent for destruction: "Their G-d abhors immorality." The key to destroying the Jew is immorality. Let us tell the Moavite girls to entice the Jewish men, and the rest will fall into place.

It happened as Bilaam foresaw. The simple men followed the blandishments of their yetzer hora, evil inclination, and fell prey to the enemy. While this in itself is a tragedy, something else occurred that warranted much greater concern. Zimri ben Salu, the distinguished Nasi, Prince, of the tribe of Shimon suddenly became an ideologue. He was not satisfied simply to wallow in the filth of immorality, to give in to his base inclination; he had to develop a shitah, ideology, to justify his lack of self-control. This was devastating, since it could erode the very structure of Torah leadership. As is usual, whenever a great breach occurs, everybody was in a state of shock - "What do we do?" The kanai, level-headed zealot, who had only one objective - kiddush shem Shomayim, sanctifying Hashem's Name - takes upon himself one thing: damage control. Pinchas understood the overwhelming responsibility of his next move. He was fully aware of the repercussions, but what else could he do? Hashem's Name was being blatantly denigrated in the most revolting manner! Someone had to take action! People questioned his act of taking a life. Some called him a murderer, noting that he was a grandson of Yisro, who once worshipped idols. This is always the response to the zealot who has the courage to act for Hashem. He is called names; his faculties are questioned, his motives are brought to task - everything is done to delegitimize his act. Why? Because people envy the zealot's courage and commitment. They fear a movement of zealotry. They wonder, "Am I going to be next?" It is much easier to criticize the zealot than to punish the sinner!

Hashem agreed with Pinchas and blessed him with the covenant of peace. Why was it necessary to bless Pinchas with peace? He was a peaceful person who acted out of necessity. The Netziv, zl, explains that while Pinchas' act of zealotry was, without question, motivated by the lofty ideal of Kiddush Hashem, he still took a life. Since the very nature of this act leaves an everlasting impression upon one's psyche, there was a real fear that the gentle Pinchas would be forever tainted. His sensitive heart would become hardened, cold, as a result of his exposure to the act of taking a human life. Hence, Hashem conferred upon him the blessing of peace which guaranteed that Pinchas' sensitive nature would not change. He would always continue to be a gentle man of peace. The act was violent - although he himself was not.

May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly. (27:16)

Moshe Rabbeinu was faced with the reality that his days of leadership were numbered. He would not lead the people that he had shepherded throughout the wilderness into Eretz Yisrael. The time had come to search for his successor. Chazal teach us that Moshe's deliberations for the future were interrupted by the ruling that the daughters of Tzalaphchad would share in the land as if he were to have had sons. He figured that now it was time to think of his own sons. Perhaps, they should be his successors. Hashem responded that Moshe's sons would not succeed him. His successor would be Yehoshua, his trusted disciple who never left his side, who would daily see to it that the bais hamidrash where Moshe taught was prepared for him. He would spread the mats and arrange the chairs in their proper order. He would be the next leader, as Shlomo haMelech says in Mishlei 27:8,"He who watches over the fig tree shall eat its fruit."

There are a number of compelling lessons to be derived from the words of Chazal. Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, sees Hashem's response as establishing Heavenly criteria for defining the essence of a Jewish leader. One would think that a leader should primarily possess the qualities intrinsic for leadership: the ability to lead the people in battle, to adjudicate law, to deal with the various types of personalities that comprise his constituency. Quite possibly, if these were the criteria, Moshe Rabbeinu's sons would have passed the test. After all, who was closer to Moshe than they were? They were with him from "day one." They also inherited his Divinely inspired character traits and qualities. Yet, the Heavenly perspective did not deem them to be worthy to assume Moshe's position. They were lacking something, a necessary component in the makeup of a leader that only Yehoshua possessed.

What did Yehoshua have that Moshe's sons do not possess? He served Moshe, his Master, his rebbe, dutifully. He arranged the seats and the mats in the study hall. This total devotion prepared Yehoshua for leadership. Yehoshua was not being rewarded for his work. No! His work developed within him the requisite quality for leading Hashem's nation. Leading the people in to battle is an act of leadership. Klal Yisrael triumphs because Hashem battles their enemies for them. The Aron haKodesh is up there in the forefront of the battle protecting the people.

What are the intrinsic characteristics of a leader? A leader is one who values his rebbe. Moshe Rabbeinu was known by many titles. Prophet, king, leader, prince, scholar: all of these are true descriptions of Moshe. The most distinguished and significant title that Moshe Rabbeinu enjoyed was that of "Rabban Shel KolYisrael," Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, the rebbe of all Klal Yisrael. Moshe's successor had to be more than a leader - he had to be able to assume the title of Rabban Shel Kol Yisrael. He had to be equipped to become the quintessential teacher of the Jewish People.

The lesson is penetrating! Moshe is our leader because he is our rabbeinu, teacher. The essence of leadership is the ability to guide, to teach, to mentor the nation. To become the teacher of Klal Yisrael one must possess utter devotion to his rebbe. He must serve him and see to it that the classroom where he teaches is prepared and ready for his lesson. He must show devotion towards the students, caring for them, arranging their seats, so that they can learn better. Yehoshua exhibited this quality of leadership in which he was unsurpassed. His total abnegation to his rebbe, to the subject, to the students, earned him the right to succeed Moshe Rabbeinu.

There is still a pressing question that must be addressed. Why did Moshe wait until now to address the issue of his sons succeeding him as leader of the nation? Surely, there must have been other opportunities when this issue could have been addressed. Indeed, the laws regarding yerushas ha'ben, a son's inheritance, preceded the episode of bnos Tzelaphchad. Horav Moshe Shternbuch, Shlita explains that the laws concerning a son inheriting his father's possessions has at its foundation a strong case for the male offspring as being the sole - or primary - inheritor. A son carries on his father's legacy and name, while a daughter, upon marriage, now carries her husband's name. Her father's lineage is not manifest with her in the same manner as it is with her brother.

Consequently, had the Torah not taught us about the daughters of Tzelaphchad, we might not have known the laws of yerushas ha'bas, a daughter's inheritance. She does not necessarily follow in the footsteps of her father. Only after the laws of a daughter's inheritance were revealed, did Moshe realize that inheritance is available to everyone.

Moshe was acutely aware of his sons' abilities. He fully understood that they could not ascend to his position based upon their own qualities. When he saw that a daughter could inherit her father's possessions and continue his legacy despite her incapacity for fitting into her father's "shoes," he felt this concept would provide a strong argument for his sons' succeeding him.

Hashem responded that Yehoshua merited the position as a result of his service and stewardship. Torah is unlike other appointments and positions which one inherits. It passes on to the one who works hardest for it, who earns it by his toil and commitment. The crown of Torah does not just pass on to children as an inheritance.

Alternatively, Nachlas Tzvi cites Horav Mordechai Weinberg, zl, who explains that there are two concepts connected to Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership over Klal Yisrael. On the one hand, he was the Sar haTorah, Prince of Torah, Manhig and Rosh haSanhedrin, leader and head of the Sanhedrin, High Court. He was a judge whose halachic decisions equaled that of all seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin. He was also Klal Yisrael's melech, king. Moshe Rabbeinu understood that his position as judge and adjudicator of the law can only be granted to one who is the undisputed scholar of the nation. It is a position that demands erudition and wisdom. Thus, it can not be inherited. It must be achieved. His position as king, however, should be one that could be inherited by his sons. Why should it be any different than a possession that a child inherits? Hashem's response went to the core of his reign as the Jewish nation's monarch. He was the king because of his distinction in Torah. The two go hand in hand and can, therefore, not be passed on unless the beneficiary is worthy of both simultaneously: monarchy and Torah leaderdship.

May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly. Who shall go out before them. (27:16.17)

Moshe Rabbeinu lists the qualifications inherent in the leader who would succeed him. The Piascesner Rebbe, zl, was a rebbe who was devoted to his flock to the extreme. If it ever occurred that a student of his was conscripted into the army, he would do everything possible to free him from the terrible spiritual and physical fate that awaited him. He would pray for him, entreating the Almighty with heart-rending prayers to spare him this fate. He raised money and resorted to all sorts of endeavors, even to the point of exhibiting his miraculous powers - all to save a Jewish soul. Indeed, the Rebbe did not rest until the young man was freed.

He was once queried by a chassid as to why he expended such superhuman efforts, to the point that he would become ill, just to save a single person. After all, is it worth all of this? The Rebbe responded, "Any rebbe who is not prepared to sacrifice his life on behalf of any member of his congregation is not a rebbe!" When Moshe Rabbeinu established the criteria for leadership, he said, "who shall go out before them," yeitzei lifneihem, who shall go out. This means, whose soul/life will go out for his flock. He should be prepared to give up his life. That is the criteria for Torah leadership."

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, related the following story concerning the Chafetz Chaim, zl, to emphasize this point. A young man with an incurable disease came before the Chafetz Chaim to ask for a brachah, blessing. The Chafetz Chaim listened intently to the young man's tragic story and responded, "I will advise you on the condition that you never reveal what I am telling you to anyone. You must go to a certain community to the home of a great talmid chacham, Torah scholar, and request his blessing. He will acquiesce to your request, and - with Hashem's help - you will have a speedy recovery."

The young man followed the Chafetz Chaim's instructions, and in a short time he was healed from the dreaded disease. Life went on, and he later moved away from Radin, the home of the Chafetz Chaim. In time, he married and set up a home. Twenty years went by, and tragedy struck again. The young man's brother-in-law was stricken with a disease similar to the one with which he had been afflicted years earlier. He did not utter a word. He adhered to the Chafetz Chaim's wishes that he never reveal the source of his own miraculous cure.

His wife remembered that he had once suffered from a serious illness and was miraculously cured. She begged him to reveal how he was cured. He remained impassive and would not relate the facts behind his cure. He refused to tell. His wife did not stop. She kept asking him, begging him, entreating him to please reveal how he was cured. Her brother's life was hanging in the balance.

He finally relented and decided to reveal what he had kept secret for over twenty years. After all, surely the Chafetz Chaim did not mean "forever" when he had instructed him never to divulge what had occurred. Perhaps his brother-in-law would likewise be spared.

A short while later, he began to feel sick. At first, it seemed like an innocuous illness. Then it progressed rapidly into a full-scale reproduction of his original illness. He became deathly afraid that his end was near. As a last resort, he decided to travel to Radin, to visit the aged Chafetz Chaim. Perhaps, he would help him- again.

The Chafetz Chaim recalled quite well their earlier meeting and what he had instructed him to do. The Chafetz Chaim turned to the man, and with a heavy heart, he said, "I wish I could help you. But, what can I do? The last time you were stricken with this disease I was much younger. I was therefore able to fast forty days and entreat Hashem in your behalf. Now, I have become old and weak and no longer able to do so." We now have a glimpse of the character of a true Torah leader and to what lengths he would go to intercede in order to help a member of his flock.

Questions & Answers

1. The Kohanim Gedolim descended from _______________.

2. What was the Covenant of Peace with which Pinchas was blessed?

3. Who were the last group of Jews to die in the midbar?

4. Why is there no Amramite family descending from Amram, Kehas' most distinguished son?

5. Did the act of resting one's hand on one who is receiving semichah apply in any generations succeeding Moshe?


1. According to Ibn Ezra, the covenant of eternal Priesthood was a promise that the Kohanim Gedolim would descend from Pinchas.

2. Ibn Ezra and the Baalei Tosfos say that the "Covenant of Peace" would protect Pinchas from the relatives of Zimri or Cosbi. Sforno contends that this covenant is a reference to Pinchas' longevity.

3. The 24,000 Jews who perished in the plague of Peor (Chizkuni).

4. Amram's offspring were divided between Kohanim and Leviim. The Torah did not want to list a separate family of Kohanim because it would imply a lack of respect for Moshe, whose sons did not distinguish themselves (Ramban).

5. This form of semichah applied only in the generation of Moshe (Igros Moshe).


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