Parshat Balak by Cindy Bernstein

After seeing that Bilaam was not able to curse the Israelites, Balak devises another plan to thwart this new nation. This next plan is to have Midianite women tempt the Israelite men into committing adultery. The text (Bamidbar 25:7) notes that when Pinchas saw this adulterous act being committed in front of the holy of holies, “veyakam metoch haeda” that Pinchas got up from amongst the people and killed the two involved. Parshat Balak has always been a favorite of mine. Growing up it seemed to me a tale of intrigue, complete with a king and a sorcerer, and even hero at the end who seemed to save the day. Pinchas seemed to exemplify many characteristics of a hero. Though others also saw this act, it was only Pinchas who rose up from amongst the people, he was the one who took action while others stood and watched. Yet, Yehoshua is the one who is named the next leader of the Jewish people. It always troubled me why it was Yehoshua, and not Pinchas, who was given this task. The Kotzker Rebbe suggests the reason is because Pinchas was “kanaai” – a zealot, and while he did an important act – zealots, no matter how righteous cannot be leaders. The true model for leadership is someone like Yehoshua, who the Torah describes as having “Ruach Elokim.” Rashi notes that this “Ruach Elokim” is the ability to understand all people well. The true model of leadership is therefore the ability to understand each individual nature, and though it is important to step up, not for extremism. In fact, Pinchas was rewarded for this act when he assumed the role of kohen gadol. As the high priest it is clear that Pinchas did merit a leadership of the nation, yet it is a position that fits his true nature and passion, his Zealotry for God. The midrash even notes that Eliyahu, a character equally zealous in his devotion to God, was a reincarnation of Pinchas. I believe the pasuk at the end of our Haftora captures this idea. In Micha 6:8, the Navi challenges each man to introspectively ask himself what God truly desires from him. As I understand the Navi, he both cautions man and inspires him to fulfill his greatest potential, but using his own individual strengths and passions – trying to look deep inside and understanding what God really wants from him. The text also notes that Pinchas rose from “methoch haeda” – from amongst the people. This idea sets forth that anybody has the ability to assume leadership and commit a righteous act. What is important is the manner from which this is done. It should be our hope that every person assuming a leadership role should have the religious and moral integrity to ask themselves what God would truly wants from them, and to work towards the betterment of all people. These messages are eerily clear to me as I sit writing this dvar torah from a café in Belgrade, Serbia. I am here as part of a summer school course on comparative conflict, using the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia as a case study. Here, we study the heinous crimes that marked these wars, and the leaders who perpetrated them. We discover the overly zealous motives behind seemingly heroic actions. It is clear that the leaders of this former state did not have the ability to channel their zealotry for the betterment of all people, to follow the message of the Navi and truly understand the privilege of the position they have been bestowed. May we all merit the ability to take the Navi’s message, to look inside ourselves and use our talents, strengths, and positions of leadership towards the betterment of our nation and humanity. Shabbat Shalom from Belgrade!