While it is undoubtedly true that people get the leaders they deserve, it is also true that great leaders are often—though not always—able to inspire people towards more noble goals. In essence, the relationship between leaders and their communities is circular, explaining why so many organizations excel year after year, whereas many others flounder year after year.
Parshat Pinchas presents us with at least three models of leadership. Zimri ben Salu, head of the tribe of Shimon, is unfortunately and tragically representative of too many “leaders”. Not realizing—or worse yet, ignoring—the fact that leaders must adhere to a higher moral standard, Zimri not only had an affair, but felt so empowered that did so publicly. Like many a leader, he felt above the law. It was specifically in his role as a leader in which he demonstrated to all his inability to control his desires, arousing the anger of G-d.
“Israel became involved with ba’al peor, vayichar af Hashem; G-d displayed anger, against Israel" (Bamidbar 25:3). The Malbim explains that the Hebrew language has two words for anger, af and cheimah. Af refers to external anger, such as that of a parent towards a child, where the anger is (or should be) just a facade, masking the deep love for the child that remains within. Cheimah, however, refers to internal, burning anger, which sometimes accompanies af, but sometimes is buried and boiling inside, at times hidden by a mask of outward kindness.
When the Jewish people began sinning with the daughters of Midian and the idolatry of ba'al peor, “vayichar af Hashem”, G-d was angry, but it was an external anger. Moshe asked the judges of Israel to “kill your constituents who were involved with ba'al peor” (Bamidbar 25:5); the sinners, but not the innocent bystanders. However, when Zimri, a tribal leader, acted no better than the masses, G-d's full anger was aroused, and a plague ensued—one that could have wiped out all the Jewish people, even those who were far removed from sin. Such is the nature of deep anger. It was Pinchas' audacious act, killing such a "leader", that “turned My anger, cheimati, from them, so that I did not destroy them” (Bamidbar 25:11).
Zimri's behaviour led inevitably to a different model of leadership, that of the righteous zealot doing whatever was necessary to avenge the honour of G-d, even at the expense of man. The harsh action of Pinchas—carrying out a death penalty without the application of any of the mandated procedures of Jewish law—was a one-time event, and may not be used as a model for our own behaviour. In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) claims it was only G-d's intervention of blessing Pinchas that prevented the Sages from excommunicating him. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting that in accordance with the idea of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure, Zimri, who so callously ignored Jewish law and values, was struck with a punishment falling far outside the normal parameters of Jewish law and values.
The ideal model of leadership can be seen in the transfer of power from Moshe to Joshua, detailed so beautifully soon after the events of ba'al peor. “Moshe spoke to G-d, saying: Let G-d of all living souls appoint one over the community. Let him come and go before them and let him bring them forth and lead them. Let G-d's community not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (Bamidbar 27:15-16).
Moshe, despite the knowledge that he would die soon after the transfer, was most concerned about the future welfare of the Jewish people—all of the Jewish people. Just as a shepherd counts each and every sheep, a leader must be a leader for each and every Jew, not just those who share his views. Rashi, commenting on the strange appellation used here in reference to G-d—Elohai haruchot, G-d of all living souls—comments that Moshe said, “Master of the universe, the thoughts of each one are known before You, and they are dissimilar from one another; appoint for them a leader who will endure each and every one according to his/her views”.
We do not have to accept all views, but we do have to accept all people. Such advice, from the greatest leader of all time, is something we should all take to heart.