“Searching for Eldad and Medad”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotecha, brims with many fascinating themes. So much so, that some of them get short shrift in the abundance of rich material.

Toward the end of the parasha, the Torah tells a dramatic story concerning Moses, that underscores both his greatness and his humility. The burdens of leadership have grown heavy on Moses. At G-d’s behest, Moses gathers 70 elders from among the people who are to help him lead the nation. G-d descends in a cloud, takes some of the prophetic spirit that resides in Moses, and places it upon the 70 men, who are then elevated to the status of prophets.

Two men, however, whose names are Eldad and Medad, remain behind in the camp, despite having the spirit of G-d in them. When Eldad and Medad begin to prophecy, a young man runs to tell Moses (Numbers 11:26): “Eldad u’Medad mit’nab’im ba’ma’chah’neh,” Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp! Joshua then cries out to Moses (Numbers 11:28), “Ah’do’nee Moshe! k’lah’aym!” My master, Moses, imprison them!

Moses, in his great humility, calms Joshua, saying (Numbers 11:29), “Are you zealous for my sake? Would that the entire people of G-d could be prophets, if G-d would but place His spirit upon them!”

According to the Midrash, the challenging words of Eldad and Medad, that so upset Joshua, were: “Moshe mayt, Yehoshua mahch’nis,” Moses will pass on, and Joshua will lead the people into the promised land. Joshua was horrified by this prophecy. The great Moses, however, reacted much differently. “If my time is up,” he said calmly, “So be it. I only wish there would be more people of quality like Eldad and Medad. In fact, my fervent prayer is that a suitable leader and successor be found for me, who will properly care for the People after I’m gone.”

How different is the reaction of Moses from the oft-heard tales of corporate America and contemporary times. Even in our religious and educational institutions, we are not infrequently confronted with talented leaders who hang on long after they are burnt out, no longer capable of properly fulfilling their responsibilities. It is indeed rare to find a leader with the self awareness to retire at the proper time, with grace and equanimity. Certainly no one is entitled to presume themselves to be indispensable. Even the great Moses was replaceable, and his greatness is dramatically underscored by the fact that he himself acknowledges that he is replaceable. Joshua may hardly measure up to Moses in stature or in wisdom, but perhaps Joshua possesses talents that even the great Moses did not have, talents that were necessary for the generation that he would lead.

The Midrash fills in more of the details concerning Eldad and Medad.

When G-d told Moses (Numbers 11:16): “Es’fah lee shiv’im eesh mee’zik’nay Yisrael,” Gather for Me seventy of the elders of Israel. Moses asked himself, what is the best way to choose seventy? “If I choose six of each tribe, there will be seventy-two, two more than required. If I choose five of each tribe, there will be sixty, ten fewer than required. If on the other hand, I choose six of ten tribes and five of two tribes, I’ll have seventy, but I will also cause jealousy among the tribes.”

What did Moses do? He selected six men of each tribe and brought seventy-two slips. On seventy slips he wrote the word “zah’kayn“–elder, leaving the remaining two slips blank. He then he shook them up, deposited them in an urn and called: “Come, draw your slips.” To those who drew the slip with the word “elder,” he said, “Heaven has already consecrated you.” To those who drew blanks, he said, “He who is everywhere does not want you; so what can I do for you?”

Rabbi Simeon said that the selection process was different. On their own, says Rabbi Simeon, Eldad and Medad chose to remain in the camp. For when the Holy One ordered Moses, “Gather onto Me seventy of the elders of Israel,” Eldad and Medad said to themselves, “We are not worthy of such distinction.” G-d said, “Because you have humbled yourselves, I will add to your distinction even greater distinction.” How did He add to their distinction? All the other prophets prophesied for a while, and then ceased. But Eldad and Medad kept on prophesying without ceasing. What did they prophesy? They announced, “Moses will die, and Joshua will bring Israel into the land.” (Midrash Rabbah B’midbar 15:18)

Quality leaders are rare indeed. Sometimes because appropriate leaders are so difficult to identify, less qualified leaders are chosen or appointed. At times those with great leadership skills decline to serve as leaders, possibly because they feel unworthy or incapable of assuming the responsibilities. Good leadership involves planning for the future to insure continuous quality leadership. Good leadership calls for identifying the hidden talents among those within our communities and our organizations, our synagogues and our schools. Identifying the reluctant leaders, and encouraging them to share their talents with the community, may uncover powerful resources that would otherwise go untapped and unutilized.

Even today, there are not a few Eldads and Medads waiting to be called. While some will undoubtedly decline, others will rise to the occasion. Truly great leaders are able to mobilize the talents and endowments in others that are often hidden and not readily apparent. Truly great leaders are not afraid of sharing the limelight with other talented leaders. Truly great leaders are not afraid of being eclipsed by new talent. And even if Eldad and Medad do not come to the fore, but choose to remain in the shadows, there is much that we can learn from them by listening to their words of prophecy, their insights and their wisdom.

May you be blessed.