“And Moses spoke to the Lord as follows, ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation who may go out before them and who may come in before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd'” (Num. 27:15-18).
Why is it at this particular point that Moses raises the issue?
Three events appear to be behind the question:
1. God has told Moses he is to die before the Israelites enter the Promised Land because he disobeyed the Divine commandment by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it (Num. 27:12-14).
2. The daughters of Tzelofchad have asked for a share in their deceased father’s inheritance because there are no sons (Num. 27:1-11); this makes Moses think about who would inherit his own role (Rashi).
3. Pinchas, who might have succeeded to the leadership, has shown himself to be zealous but impetuous (Num 25:1-15).
Why should God consider Pinchas as the future leader?
Moses had sons, after all. But as in this case, sons do not necessarily have their father’s capacity, and Moses realised that someone else would need to be chosen.
Pinchas would have been a good choice. He was young, able and passionate about God. He had priestly lineage and learning; he had everything going for him. But when a crisis erupted and he showed himself to be somewhat too fanatical, he displayed a lack of balance and crisis control, and such a person was not dependable enough when it came to dealing with people.
But surely God had a somewhat different view when He decided that Pinchas would not lose his priestly status despite his over-zealous action in killing an Israelite sinner and the woman with whom he had sinned (Num. 25).
How is it that Pinchas could be a kohen but not a leader?
The answer is that the kohen carries out ritual functions in the sanctuary and does not necessarily have to be a people person. The leader, however, has to know what is politic and be “a man in whom there is spirit”, as was the eventual appointee, Joshua (Num. 28:18).
What does “spirit” mean in this connection? Rashi explains that it means a leader capable of understanding the spirit and personality of each of his people. The leader has to be a leader for the whole people and enjoy their trust and confidence.