In the second half of this week’s topic packed parsha, we read a chapter which itself appears to have many sub topics. It opens with Am Yisrael complaining, though the exact object of their grumbling is unclear. Following this a group within the people, joined then by the entire nation, laments the fact that for so long they have been eating the manna bread. They pine for the “delicacies” of Egypt and end by demanding meat.
This sequence of events causes somewhat of a meltdown as Moshe Rabbeinu cries in despair to God, claiming that he can no longer deal with the nation alone. In response Hashem does two things: He instructs Moshe to appoint seventy elders who will assist him in leading the people and he sends an abundance of meat which ultimately causes a plague as a result of which many of the “meat eaters” perish.
While the nature of the assistance provided by these seventy elders is not obvious and requires further discussion, we will focus on the event which occurs between these two reactions of Hashem.
“Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said, and he assembled seventy men of the elders of the people, and stood them around the Tent.
The Lord descended in a cloud and spoke to him, and He increased some of the spirit that was on him and bestowed it on the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did not continue.
Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp.
The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesizing in the camp!”
Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!”
Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”
Then Moses entered the camp; he and the elders of Israel. ” (Bamidbar 11:24-30)
On reading these pesukim, several questions arise. Who were these two people and what were they doing? What were they saying or prophesizing? What is the significance of this event?
A lot has been written about this episode of Eldad and Medad. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (17a) gives various suggestions as to the nature of their comments and why they may have incensed Yehoshua. However, the fact that the Torah itself does not divulge the nature of Eldad and Medad’s prophecy behooves us to look for the key to understanding this episode in other areas.
If we take a look at the entire chapter, we note, as stated above, that we witness the first real crisis in Moshe’s leadership. Moshe seems to lose faith not only in his abilities as a leader but also in the people and their will to continue on their journey to Eretz Yisrael. One may ask why Moshe breaks down at this point? Am Yisrael have staged complaints several times during their wanderings in the wilderness and Moshe has addressed their concerns each time.
The simple answer to this question can be found in the timing of the complaint. A few verses earlier Am Yisrael begin their journey from Har Sinai, their destination – Eretz Yisrael. Their departure from Har Sinai having been delayed because of Chet HaEgel, a full year and one month after having left Egypt the nation finally embarks on what should be the final stages of their travels. This fact is encapsulated in Moshe’s words to Chovav (his father-in-law or brother-in-law, see commentaries to Bamidbar 10:29) – “nosim anachnu” – “we are going” – in the present tense. Not, we will be going to Eretz Yisrael. Rather we are going to Eretz Yisrael, now! This is it. This is what we have been waiting for. As Rav Soloveitchik, in his famous shiur on this parsha states, this is the triumphant march to Eretz Yisrael.
Moshe is ecstatic! His life’s mission is about to be completed. The people he first encountered as slaves are about to enter the land promised to them by God, the land to which Hashem referred when He first told Moshe of His plan and Moshe’s role therein.
Now we can understand Moshe’s great disappointment when he discovers that his excitement is not shared by the nation. Not only do they not seem overjoyed by their journey, they begin complaining again just like they did over a year ago when they had just left Egypt. Not only do they seem to lack enthusiasm for the upcoming entrance into Eretz Yisrael, what concerns them is their dietary needs, particularly meat. Rav Elchanan Samet encapsulates Moshe’s frustrations beautifully in this excerpt taken from a translation of his article “Leadership in Crisis”. (The Hebrew version is found in Rav Samet’s first set of Iyunim BeParshat Hashavua. The full text of the article in English can be found here: https://www.etzion.org.il/en/moshe-vs-lustful-leadership-crisis )
“The psychological crisis facing the nation’s leader is now unavoidable – from the loftiest heights Moshe has fallen to the lowest depths of despair. What formerly appeared as a movement towards the limitless good that Hashem would bestow upon Israel becomes now, in Moshe’s monologue, the evil that Hashem has done to him by placing upon him the burden of leading “this whole nation” to “the land that You promised their forefathers,” and he concludes with a request that indicates his wish to be released from his task – “and let me not see my misfortune.” As elevated as Moshe’s spirit was at the time of his great hopes, so deep now is his despair. This is a natural reaction in face of such great disappointment in the nation, and Moshe’s psychological state finds expression in his speech.”
Now let us return to Eldad and Medad. The Torah stresses one aspect of their prophesizing episode – they were in the camp, “bamachane”. They stayed in the camp, they did not go out to the tent, they prophesized in the camp. The youth states somewhat hysterically to Moshe “Eldad and Medad are prophesizing in the camp”. This obviously is more significant than merely stating their location.
Moshe convenes the seventy elders in the “Ohel Moed”, the tent which, since Chet HaEgel, had been pitched outside the camp (See Sh’mot 33: 7-11). It was here where he would receive people and it was that tent which was perceived as where Moshe connected to God. It therefore made sense that Moshe would bring the seventy elders to that place wherein they are instilled with the same spirit (ruach) which enabled him to lead Am Yisrael.
Eldad and Medad did not go out to the tent. As Rashi and other commentaries state, they made a conscious decision to remain in the camp. What did they mean to convey by this act? Some of the mefarshim suggest that they were acting humbly or they did not want to cause an argument as to which of the seventy-two people elected would not be included in the seventy to be chosen. However, it seems that Eldad and Medad wished to make a statement.
Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, in his book Tzir VeTzon (P117-120), posits that Eldad and Medad were trying to comment on the type of leadership that Moshe Rabbeinu represented. The elders he wished to introduce to assist in leading the people would just exacerbate the problem.
As we described above, Moshe was very disappointed with the people’s attitude as they embarked on the journey to Eretz Yisrael. It is possible that Moshe simply did not fully understand the mindset of his charges. Moshe himself was on a spiritual high but the majority of the nation was merely concerned with its daily existence. While Moshe was able to look beyond the challenges of living in the wilderness with its meager material resources, the regular members of Am Yisrael were not. Eldad and Medad were stating exactly this – Moshe has lost touch with his people. We, on the other hand are staying in the camp, and therefore with the people.
This helps to explain the statement in the Gemara, quoted by Rashi, that the prophecy of Eldad and Medad related to Moshe’s leadership. “Moshe will die; Yehoshua will lead us into Eretz Yisrael”. This clearly represents the notion that as much as Moshe despaired of the people, the people despaired of Moshe!
How is Moshe to respond to this accusation? Yehoshua, always defending his mentor Moshe, exclaims to Moshe “adoni Moshe kela’em” – “my master Moshe imprison them”. (There are several interpretation offered to the term “kela’em.) But Moshe retorts that he respects their prophecy because it stems from Hashem. This would seem to imply that Moshe accepts the criticism and even attributes it to God Himself.
The next verse is telling indeed as it describes Moshe returning to the camp. Moshe recognizes that he has placed too large a distance between himself and his charges. He must return to the camp, feel the pulse of the people and thus restore their trust in him.
As we read this parsha we feel for Moshe Rabbeinu. We should understand his frustrations and identify with his concerns. And, at the same time, we learn a vital message about leadership of any type, whether as teachers, madrichim or even parents. We must never lose touch with those in our charge. It is imperative that we know to look at the world and each situation not just through our eyes but through the eyes of those we hope to teach, influence and guide. This is the real nature of empathy. And Moshe Rabbeinu may have had a momentary lapse but, as the end of the parsha assures us, he remains the ultimate teacher.