Pinchas 5783 – Gam Ki Eilech
Every few years Shavuot falls during the summer and I get the distinct privilege of celebrating Shavuot at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin during staff week. Counselors stay up all night studying, with many offering to teach and lead sessions over the course of the evening. A few years ago, I crafted a session on eight lessons in leadership from the eight summer Torah portions. It was very hard to pick just eight (there could be eight alone in just this week’s parsha, Pinchas!).
At the end of Parashat Pinchas, Moses asks God to choose his successor. He says,
יִפְקֹד ה׳ אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכל־בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל־הָעֵדָה׃ אֲשֶׁר־יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁ֤ר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם וַאֲשֶׁר יְבִיאֵם וְלֹא תִהְיֶה עֲדַת ה׳ כַּצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר אֵין־לָהֶם רֹעֶה׃
Let God, Source of Breath/Spirit, 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 God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd (Num. 27:16-17)
We have lots of different names for God, but Elohei Haruchot, “Source of Breath/Spirit” is a unique one. Why does Moses call God by this name here? Our Biblical commentator Rashi asks the same question: He says, “What is the point of this phrase? Moshe said to God: Master of the Universe! Everyone’s unique and diverse thoughts are revealed and known to you—Appoint a leader for them who will be able to bear each and every one of them. And so, Moshe’s request and hope is for a leader who will be able to embrace the multivocality of the community and the diverse and varied individuals who comprise it.”
This is such incredible insight and vision from Moses. My teacher Rabbi Avital Hochstein notices that this request from Moses happens right after we hear about the request of the daughters of Tzelafchad. She writes:
“Give us an inheritance among our father’s brothers”(Bamidbar 27:4). Moshe does not give them an immediate and direct answer, rather he refers the matter to God: “Moshe brought their claim to God.” The divine response is unambiguous: “God said to Moshe as follows: Indeed, the daughters of Tzelofhad speak justly” (Bamidbar 27:5,7).
God here is able to embrace the statements and claims of the daughters of Tzelofhad, to proclaim them as just, even when their words push beyond mainstream thinking of the day. I would like to suggest that it is Moshe’s experience of God here that inspires him to turn to God as the “God of spirits,” the God who is capable of hearing many different voices and of bringing them into the divine realms of truth and justice. Perhaps this is how we should understand Moshe’s request for a “man imbued with spirit”—someone who understands the spirits of different people. Perhaps Moshe understands and has internalized his own shortcomings. He was not able (on his own) to fully embrace all of the “spirits” and to accept the words of the daughters of Tzelofhad. He therefore hopes for a new leader who will succeed him and who can attain these divine heights.”
This is true leadership. Someone who understands their own shortcomings and seeks to find support in areas in which they need help or know they might not be able to deliver. We all need leaders like this, and we all need to strive to be leaders like this as well. None of us can do this alone!
This melody, Gam Ki Eilech, is put to words from the 23rd psalm. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that the melody line in the verse shifts from voice to voice, as if to say that if you are lost and alone and lose the strength to sing, know that someone will be there to share their strength and voice and sing with you.
Where are you finding support and strength this Shabbat?