Parshat Pinchas is one of the longest and most complicated in the Torah. God approves of the killing of an Israelite by another; women can inherit their father's land; Moses finds out he won’t enter the promised land. Wait, what?
Yes, Moses failed God way back at the beginning and now gets his punishment. You might think that when Moses hears he will not see the fruit of his lifelong project, he would break down. Instead, Moses asks God to ensure that the Israelites will have a leader to follow so they would not be like "sheep without a shepherd."
This is one of the most powerful verses in the relationship between Moses and God, maybe even the whole Torah. The Torah works to establish God as the shepherd for the Jewish people: God takes Abraham out and shows him the way to the promised land; God delivers the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the desert. Yet, in this moment, Moses teaches God about human nature: Regardless of God's superiority, the people need a mortal leader. Otherwise, they will lose their way.
Together, they establish the relationship between national and religious leadership. Going forward, the Jewish people will have religious leaders (like priests, prophets and rabbis) to guide their spiritual path, and secular leaders (like judges, kings, heads of state and heads of federations) to guide the community.
Both types of Jewish leadership interact today, and we trace it back to this moment between Moses and God.
Erez Cohen is the executive director of Hillel at the University of Illinois-Urbana, Champaign.