Phinehas - Weekly Torah Portion

Leaders are rarely open to listen to words of criticism. Even more so they dislike those who are critical of them and actually take action about it. They tend to lose control over themselves once such a critic is also successful and able to make what is important to them to cease to exist. Fear not, this has nothing to do with today and now, here I am dealing with a case of thousands of years ago and which is described in the Haftarah of this week. “Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.’” Elijah, just like Phinehas before him, avenged the fury of God, the difference being that Phinehas had to deal with God not a human. Therefore we find in this week’s portion of the Torah that the Godly response is, “Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.”

Elijah naturally fears the consequence of his deed. “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” He does not tell the story as is but receives an interesting response. “‘Go forth and stand on the mountain before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle stillness.” Now Elijah gets it, “he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” He now understands that the message given to Phinehas at his time is a message of peace from him now. It is not in loud noises, nor clamors, shouts, defiance, arrogance, or haughtiness. The true power is in the “sound of a gentle stillness.”

Few are the leaders who know how to lead in this manner. Possibly this is a divine quality that is tough to be found in a human being, the product of flash and blood. It does not mean, though, that we should not aspire to such greatness. The opposite is true. It is necessary to lead humbly and with confidence, quietly and fortitude, calmly and actionably. Not every leader sees a threat when a subject refers to a higher authority and does not see that as a threat to the throne. Just see how Moses reacts when the daughters of the late Zelophehad. They address him with a complaint for which he does not have an answer and therefore he decides to turn to a higher authority, bringing “their case before the Lord.” He also receives an answer, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in their statements. You shall surely give them a hereditary possession among their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer the inheritance of their father to them.” There are all kinds of conditions and some of this change is later reversed but the leader does not see that as a challenge upon his leadership. Moses is not the kind of leader who assumes he has all the answers and internalizes his finiteness, the fact that he will lead the people for a limited period of time. As a human being he will not live to see how things develop in the future and at best he will be able to partially observe that from a far and from up high.

Leadership has nothing to do with bells and whistles that deafen the ears, nor does it involve the sounds of a howling wind, neither does it manifest itself with big fires that consume everything which is around it. The manifestation of leadership is in the “sound of a gentle stillness.” It is the ability of a leader to simply say the most complex truths, to honestly describe the trying challenges of all, and the delivery of a message of hope without which we have no chance of survival. Leadership is also the ability to step down and leave space for the next leader in a smart process of replacements, that is also wise, moral, and intelligent. Internalizing that there will always be those that can step up into the leaders role and get us moving towards a better future.

Shabbat Shalom and wishes for good health to all.

Reuven Marko, 10 July 2020, 19 Tamuz, 5780

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