Parashat Pinhas: Appreciating Other People’s Needs
In Parashat Pinhas, God informs Moshe that he would soon pass on, due to his sin at the incident of Meh Meriba. Moshe then requested that a suitable successor be appointed, so that Beneh Yisrael would enter the land under the guidance of a capable leader. God responded by instructing Moshe to appoint Yehoshua for this role, and He described Yehoshua as "Ish Asher Ru’ah Bo" – literally, "a man who has spirit within him" (27:18). This description refers to Yehoshua’s quality of understanding the individual needs of each and every person, the ability to relate to different people and their specific needs.
Different approaches have been taken to explain why God punished Moshe so severely for the sin of Meh Meriba. According to the Rambam, Moshe sinned by expressing anger. For a person of Moshe’s stature, speaking angrily to the people was indeed a grave sin, and for this he was punished so severely and was denied the right to enter Eretz Yisrael. There is, however, an additional explanation. Ever since his appointment as leader of Beneh Yisrael, Moshe stood up for the people. When God sent Moshe to Pharaoh to demand Beneh Yisrael’s freedom, and the meeting resulted in further intensified persecution, Moshe turned to God and demanded, "Why have You done evil to this nation!" (Shemot 5:22). The heavenly angels questioned how God could tolerate such a brazen complaint, but God explained that He looks kindly upon Moshe for expressing his anguish and pleading the people’s case. Likewise, after the sin of the golden calf, when God announced His plans to annihilate Beneh Yisrael and create a new nation from Moshe, Moshe interceded on the people’s behalf and refused to abandon them. Even though they had just worshipped a graven image, Moshe pleaded their case before God and stood firmly on their side. This pattern repeated itself on numerous occasions throughout Moshe’s tenure as leader.
At Meh Meriba, however, which occurred at the end of the 40-year period of desert travel, Moshe did not stand with the people. They made a reasonable request, demanding water, without which they could not survive, but Moshe reacted with anger. It seems that Moshe, who constantly continued throughout his life to grow and advance in his devotion to God and stature of sanctity, reached the point where he could no longer relate to the needs of ordinary human beings. In a certain sense, his failure at Meh Meriba was actually a tribute to his level of greatness. He became almost like an angel, removed from the needs and concerns of normal people. But human beings cannot be led by an angel. And thus once this happened, God informed him that he could no longer lead. A leader must be somebody "Asher Ru’ah Bo," who can genuinely identify and empathize with the individual needs and concerns of each and every person, regardless of his stature or standing. When Moshe raised himself to the level where this was no longer possible, he was replaced by Yehoshua.
This insight conveys a valuable lesson that is relevant to all people, and not just to leaders. We must be attentive and sensitive to other people’s needs, even if they are different than our own needs. People are different and need different things. Kindness does not mean doing for others only what we would want done in their situation; rather, it means trying to identify what their personal needs are, and meeting them.
The Rebbe of Sanz was known for his extraordinary kindness, and for giving charity to anybody who came to him in need. Once, his wife approached him and said that at the butcher shop she saw a woman to whom he gives charity, and that woman was purchasing duck – a very expensive delicacy. His wife was outraged that a woman who supports herself by asking for charity would be treating herself to such luxuries. The Rebbe, however, responded, "Thank you for telling me. Now I realize that she needs duck." They may have viewed duck as a luxury, but apparently this woman saw it as a need. People are different, and they have different needs. What one person finds unnecessary is a necessity for somebody else.
This is the message of "Ish Asher Ru’ah Bo" – being able to relate to and empathize with the needs and concerns of the people around us, even if those needs are concerns are much different than ours.