There was once a Chasidic Rebbe known as the ‘Rebbe Ha’Katan’. He was six years old when he inherited the mantle of the rebbe. Because of his age, he was assigned an uncle, a great person in his own right, to guide and teach him until he was ready to take over the full mantle of leadership.
His uncle once found him packing a suitcase on a Friday morning and asked the young Rebbe where he was going. The young Rebbe explained that he had just received an urgent message from a poor farmer in an isolated area. The message said that his only cow, the only means of the family’s sustenance, was due to give birth that Shabbos. He therefore requested that the Rebbe come to spend Shabbos to pray for the well-being of the cow.
The astonished uncle explained that the custom of the great Chasidic Rebbes was never to travel anywhere on Erev Shabbos. “In any case,” asked the uncle, “why can’t you just daven for the cow from here!?”
The young Rebbe responded: “I understood from the message I received that the cow was not the real issue. The family is isolated, poor and needed the inspiration of a shabbos in the presence of a Rebbe. He wants his children to know the Rebbe and make Kiddush together. I feel that this is the real issue and that is why I am traveling on Erev Shabbos.”
“If you can read that telegram and understand what it is REALLY asking you are a real Rebbe! You no longer need a mentor!”
Leadership is the ability to see the need of the moment. to see beneath the surface and read between the lines. To depart, if need be, from the ancient custom and respond to the need of the moment.
Pinchas is mentioned in our parsha as the grandson of Aharon. He could be presumed to have a similar approach to the world. Yet, his act of zealotry is the polar opposite of what we know of the peace-loving Aharon, who gently draws people to the Torah.
Not only that, but even in a comparable situation, their responses are worlds apart. When Aharon encounters the mass idolatry of the Golden Calf his response was calm. He didn’t rail and rage or charge with a spear. He took no action to stop the Golden Calf in its tracks. He gently and subtly tried to cause a delay, in order to give time for Moshe to return. Why didn’t he act like Pinchus?
Pinchas, in contrast, when faced with mass, public transgression, takes definitive, aggressive action which halts the problem immediately risking his own life. The Zohar comments that Pinchas was the tikkun for Aharon.
I would suggest that each response was entirely correct, each for its own generation. The generation who made the Golden Calf had just left Egypt a few weeks earlier; they were spiritually immature. The Jewish people which Pinchas encountered, had been eating from Hashem’s hand for forty years and were ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. They warranted a different type of response.
The Talmud explains, that ‘Yiftach in his generation was as great as the Prophet Shmuel was for his generation’. The point is not to reminisce about the greatness of previous generations since the leadership G-d sends is generation specific.The question of whether previous leaders were of greater stature is meaningless. The appropriate leadership for a generation is that which fully understands the context and needs of the people, and therefore how to respond.