Parashat Pinhas

Friday, July 10, 2020 /18 Tammuz, 5780
Parashat Pinhas Numbers 25:10-30:1

Dear Friends,

As I watched Hamilton on television this past weekend, there was one song that particularly struck me. Aptly named “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” this masterful piece of music prompts us to consider the legacy of Alexander Hamilton. I imagine Hamilton heading to his duel with Aaron Burr before his life ended far too soon. What thoughts went through his head? How did he wish to be remembered?

By extension, this song compels us to consider our legacies. What do we wish to leave behind? What kind of impact do we hope to make? How do we want to be remembered?” The Talmud says, “As my parents planted for me before I was born, so do I plant for those who will come after me.” (BT Taanit 23a) What kinds of plants do we wish to inspire into being?

After nearly 40 years of wandering in the desert, Moses is reaching the end of his life. In this week’s Torah portion, God explains that soon he will ascend the heights of Abarim, where his journey will come to an end. God instructs Moses to appoint a new leader for the community. “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired leader, and lay your hand upon him,” God says. (Numbers 27:18) He is to “lay his hand upon [Joshua]” as one who kindles one lamp from another, explains Bamidbar Rabbah. (21:16)

Moses knew this day was coming, and yet there is no doubt that God’s words were excruciatingly painful. His life had been a sequence of unexpected twists and turns – from his journey through the Sea of Reeds as an infant, to his upbringing in the Egyptian Palace, to his exile in the desert of Modin, to God’s calling him to serve as the Israelite leader. He had found a purpose in bringing his people to the Promised Land. Now he would not be able to enter himself.

Moses could have been angry. He could have thrown up his hands. But instead, he chose to rise to the occasion.

I envision Moses looking around at a people who will soon enter the Promised Land. He eyes Joshua, seeing the fear in his eyes as he prepares to fill Moses’ impossibly large shoes. Moses smiles, recalling his humble beginnings. In Joshua’s eyes, he sees a younger version of his own. He calls Joshua over. Instead of following God’s command to bless Joshua with one hand, Rashi points out that he generously uses both hands. Moses “filled [Joshua] with a generous helping of wisdom.” In so doing, Moses demonstrated the qualities that made him such a great leader, to begin with, his focus, his sense of purpose, and his love of people.

As much as Moses teaches us about leadership, he shows us more about our humanity. Although Moses didn’t like the circumstances under which his life would come to an end, he understood that life is filled with challenges beyond our control. The way we respond demonstrates the character we hold, and the legacy we will leave behind.

When faced with the unexpected, how do we wish to respond? What are the seeds we want to plant for the future, and what is the legacy we wish to leave behind?

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail