Pinchas: The Right Spirit

Moses knows he will die before the Israelites cross the Jordan into Canaan.  In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, he asks God who will replace him as their leader.

Nobody can replace Moses as a prophet; nobody else is capable of having such frequent, direct, long, and personal conversations with God.  Yet someone must replace him as the administrative and military head of the people as they take over the “promised land”.  Moses’ own two sons dropped out of the Torah early in the book of Exodus/Shemot; presumably they either returned to their Midianite grandfather’s home, or accompanied the Israelites for 40 years without doing anything worth mentioning.  Moses’ nephews Eleazar and Itamar are priests, assisted only by Eleazar’s son Pinchas, to whom God grants priesthood at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.1

So Moses spoke to God, saying: “May God, the God of the ruchot of all flesh, appoint a man over the community who will go out before them and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out and who will bring them in, so the community will not be like a flock without a shepherd”. (Numbers/Bemidbar 27:15-17)

ruchot (רוּחֺת) = plural of ruach (רוּחַ) = spirit, wind, mood, driving impulse.

The phrase “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” is unusual; it occurs only twice in the whole Torah.  The other appearance is earlier in the book of Numbers, when Korach leads a revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron.  At one point he gathers the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Stand apart from this community, and I will consume them in an instant!”  But they fell on their faces and said: “God, the God of the ruchot of all flesh!  Is it that one man sins, and You become angry at the whole community? (Numbers 16:20-22)

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

Taking their point, God amends the order to standing apart from the three ringleaders of the rebellion, Korach, Datan, and Aviram.  Moses and Aaron take the extra step of warning all the other people to move away from the tents of the three rebels.  The earth swallows them, but not the people standing at a distance.  God also destroys Korach’s followers, the 250 Levites who are deliberately usurping the priestly role of offering incense.2

By using the phrase “the God of the ruchot of all flesh”, Moses and Aaron remind God that God knows the moods and desires of every individual, and therefore should distinguish between the motivation of Korach, Datan, Aviram, and the 250 Levites, who talk about justice but want personal power, and the motivation of the rest of the Israelites, who do not understand what is going on and just want to stay alive.

Moses uses the phrase “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” again in the Torah portion Pinchas, when he asks God to appoint someone to take over his position as the leader or ruler of the Israelites.  Once again, Moses might be reminding God that God knows the inner spirits of all human beings.  He wants God to choose a new leader with the right personality and motivations for the job.

Obviously Moses’ successor should not be driven by the desire for personal power, like the rebels in the portion Korach.  But what other qualities should this man3 have?

Rashi4 explained Moses’ use of “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” by writing that Moses also said: “Master of the World! The character of each individual is revealed to you, and no two are alike.  Appoint a leader who can tolerate each individual according to his character.’’

The leader of the Israelites must be able to discern each person’s ruach or inner spirit, and adjust accordingly.  He cannot succeed by simply following all the laws God gave to Moses; he must be able to interpret the laws and make new decisions that take into account the natures of different individuals in various situations.5

After Moses asks “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” to appoint the new leader, God picks the obvious choice: Joshua, who has been Moses’ attendant for 40 years in the wilderness, who led the first battle against Amalek,6 and who stood with Caleb in favor of trusting God to help the Israelites conquer Canaan instead of heading back to Egypt.7

Moses Appoints Joshua, from Henry Northrop, Treasures of the Bible, 1894

Then God said to Moses: “Take for yourself Joshua, son of Nun, a man who has ruach in him, and lay your hand upon him.” (Numbers 27:18)

What does God mean by saying Joshua has ruach in him?  Elsewhere in the Torah, the ruach of a human being might be an emotional compulsion such as jealousy,8 or a “ruach Elohim” (spirit of God), an ability bestowed by God such as the wisdom of a craftsman or the gift of prophecy9.

But sometimes the Torah refers to a person’s ruach without a qualifier.   Before this week’s Torah portion, “The ruach of Jacob came alive” when he realized his son Joseph was alive and well after all.10  The Israelite slaves cannot hear Moses’ good news because they suffer “from shortness of ruach and from hard servitude.11

In these two cases, ruach appears to mean a zest for life.  So perhaps in this week’s Torah portion God says Joshua is “a man who has ruach in himbecause he has enough psychic energy to do the job of both leading an extensive military campaign and administering justice among his people.  If Joshua can also discern the ruchot of all the individuals he must lead, all the better.

Joshua is not another Moses; but his ruach, as well as his experience, make him the best candidate to lead the people after Moses dies.


Democracy was not invented until 508 B.C.E. in Athens, long after the time of the exodus or the time when the story of the exodus was recorded.  For the ancient Israelites, as for other cultures around the world, leaders or kings were usually replaced by their children or by a general in a coup.  Occasionally the old king would appoint a new king, in a process parallel to Moses’ laying hands on Joshua.  Everyone claimed the right to kingship came from their people’s god.

In democratic nations today we face a different challenge when it comes to replacing our leaders.  Most, though not all, candidates for highest office have a zest for power.  Do they also have a zest for life?  More importantly, do they have the ability to discern the characters of different persons, and consider their individual needs and desires?  Can they extrapolate and address the needs of citizens in a different social class from their own, people they have never met?

  1. Numbers 25:12-13.
  2. Numbers 16:35.
  3. Moses assumes that although a woman such as Miriam might lead other women, men will only follow a male leader. This is the attitude of the ancient Israelites throughout the Torah. Even the female prophet and judge Devorah, who is the actual leader during the battle against the Canaanite general Sisera, gets Barak to be her front man in Judges 4:6-10.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who wrote extensive commentary in the 11th century in France.
  5. In Numbers 27:21, God tells Moses that Joshua must also ask the high priest, Eleazar, to use the umim to divine God’s decisions about when to go out to or withdraw from battles.
  6. Exodus 17:8-13.
  7. Numbers 14:1-9.
  8. I.e. Numbers 5:14, 5:30.
  9. I.e. Exodus 28:3 and 31:3 (Betzaleil), Numbers 11:17-29 (70 elders), and Numbers 24:2 (Bilaam).
  10. Genesis 45:27.
  11. Exodus 6:9.

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