THE TORAH tells us of two great men who reacted compassionately and dramatically to the sins of their people: Moses and his grandnephew Phineas. Whenever the people committed a serious transgression, Moses interceded with God to spare them. This was especially evident at the time of the sin of the egel hazahav — the Golden Calf. When Moses pleaded for forgiveness, God said, "I have seen these people and behold it is a stiff-necked people. And now let me alone and my wrath will wax hot against them, and I will destroy them; and I will make of thee a great nation" (Exod. 32:9-10). Thus the Almighty offered Moses the opportunity to become the progenitor of a new nation. Moses rejected that honor, and continued to plead the cause of Israel. "And now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin — but if not blot me out, I pray Thee, from Thy book which Thou hast written" (Ibid. 32:32).

The Psalmist pays special tribute to Moses for this heroic act of mesirat nefesh. "And He said that He would destroy them, had not Moses His chosen stood before Him in the breach to turn back His wrath, lest He should destroy them" (Ps. 106:23).

Phineas, however, reacted altogether differently to the sin of his people. He, too, turned away the wrath of God by a heroic act of self sacrifice. When he witnessed the horrendous act of immorality committed by the head of a tribe, he took a javelin and avenged that chilul ha-Shem by slaying the sinner and his consort (Numb. 25:6-15).

The Kotzker Rebbe asked: How is it that following the incident of Kanaut, Moses turned to God and asked for the selection of a successor to his leadership? What prompted him to say at that particular moment, "Let the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who will go out before them and who will come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord will not be as a flock that has no shepherd" (Numb. 27:16-17)?

To which the famed Rebbe offers the following explanation: until that dramatic moment, Moses thought that Phineas would succeed him to the position of leadership in Israel. Phineas was young and of great yichus , unusually talented, brilliant and pious. But when Moses witnessed the manner in which his kinsman had reacted to the sin of Zmri ben Salu , he resolved that Phineas was not qualified for the top post of leadership in the nation. While a kana-i —a zealot—may be fit for the office of Kehunah — of priesthood in the Temple, he is not the ideal man to lead the entire congregation of Israel. Moses, therefore, asked God to appoint another man, one who would be a compassionate shepherd of the flock. And God agreed, saying, "Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, ish asher ruach bo , a man in whom there is spirit" (Ibid. 28:18>.

Rashi's comment on this verse is significant. He states that God said, "Take Joshua as you have asked, who will lead in accordance with the spirit of each and every one."

That God preferred the derech —the method of Moses—is pointed out in yet another saying of the sages. In describing the gripping drama of the death of the incomparable leader they say, "The Almighty was weeping and saying, 'Who will rise up for me against the evildoers; who will stand for me against the workers of iniquity? (Ps. 94:16)" (Deut. Rab. end; Sotah 13).

In His lament, God did not mention the fact that Mose was the most brilliant teacher of Torah to Israel, or that he was the greatest prophet of all times. He bemoaned the fact that one who had intervened for "the evildoers and the workers of iniquity" was no longer in a position to plead for the sinners of his people.

Phineas was awarded the office of Kehunah for his unusual act of zeal, but the office of leading klal Yisrael went to Joshua, ish asher ruach bo —a man who like Moses, woul lead Israel lefi rucho shel kol echad ve-echad, "in accordanc with the spirit of each and everyone."

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