Parashat Pinhas: Letting Our Leaders Do Their Job
In the opening Pesukim of Parashat Pinhas we read of the reward G-d promises to Pinhas for his heroic act that saved Beneh Yisrael. As we read at the end of last week’s Parasha, the nation of Moab lured Beneh Yisrael to sins of immorality and idol worship, and in response G-d unleashed a devastating plague that killed 24,000 people. The plague came to an end only when Pinhas, the grandson of Aharon Ha’kohen, arose and killed Zimri – the tribal leader of Shimon – and Kozbi – a princess of Midyan – who were committing a public sinful act. G-d proclaims that because of Pinhas’ courage, "Lo Chiliti Et Beneh Yisrael Be’kin’ati" – "I did not annihilate the Children of Israel in My rage." Were it not for Pinhas, it seems, the nation would have been destroyed.
We might have assumed, then, that the people reacted by congratulating Pinhas and hailing him as a hero, who saved them from annihilation. Surprisingly, however, the Sages teach us that the precise opposite occurred. The people actually protested Pinhas’ act, loudly condemning his violence perpetrated against a prominent leader. "What right does he have to kill the leader of Shimon!" they cried. They accused him of killing for ulterior motives, of acting violently without any reasonable justification. G-d therefore had to speak to Moshe to make it clear that Pinhas acted appropriately under the circumstances, and even saved the people from destruction.
Hazal here give us an important insight into human nature. We don’t like to be criticized, and so when we are criticized, we turn around the send it back to the speaker. Rather than come to terms with the fact that we are wrong, we insist that it is the one criticizing who acted wrongly.
It is far easier for a Rabbi to tell his congregation that they are perfect, that there are no problems, that nothing they do is wrong, and that there’s nothing they need to do differently. A Rabbi would feel much more comfortable giving these kinds of speeches all the time, without ever having to criticize. But if he did this, he would be failing to do his job. Obviously, Pinhas’ violent act was the exception rather than the rule, but it shows that every so often a leader must take a difficult, unpopular stand in defense of truth. And as in the case of Pinhas, he can anticipate angry reactions and accusations. But it has to be done.
We have to allow our leaders to do their job, and avoid the tendency to instinctively reject and resent criticism. It is not easy for Rabbis to get up and say the unpopular thing, but every now and then, this is what the job requires. In order for us to grow and improve, we need to be told when things aren’t quite right. And therefore we only help ourselves by being open to and embracing criticism, rather than instinctively rejecting it.