“The Gift of Spiritual Potential”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In response to Moses’ complaint that he cannot bear the burden of the people of Israel alone, G-d instructs Moses to select 70 elders who would constitute a Sanhedrin, and help him lead the people.

In Numbers 11:16, G-d tells Moses, “Es’fah lee shiv’im eesh mee’zik’nay Yis’ra’el, ah’sher ya’dah’tah kee haym zik’nay ha’ahm v’shoht’rahv,” Gather to me seventy men from the elders of Israel whom you know to be the elders of Israel and its officers. G-d then instructs Moses to take the seventy men into the Tabernacle where G-d will transfer some of Moses’ G-dly spirit and place it upon the elders. The elders will then be able to help Moses respond to the needs of the people so that he will not have to lead them alone.

According to the Midrash cited by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) in Numbers 11:26, Moses prepared a lottery, choosing six representatives from each of the twelve tribes who were qualified to be elders. Seventy of the 72 candidates drew lots that bore the world “elder,” and two drew blank lots. According to tradition, two worthy candidates, Eldad and Medad, drew the blank lots.

In Numbers 11:26, Scripture reports that when the spirit rested on Eldad and Medad, “Vah’yit’nab’oo ba’ma’cha’neh,” they prophesied in the camp. The Torah then relates that a young lad ran toward Moses to alert him: “Eldad u’Medad mit’nab’im ba’ma’cha’neh,” Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!

Concerned for the dignity of his teacher Moses, Joshua the son of Nun spoke up and said: “A’doh’nee Moshe, k’lah’aym!” My master Moses, arrest them! Moses responds with one of the most memorable Biblical lines (Numbers 11:29): “Ha’m’kah’nay a’tah lee; oo’mee yee’tayn kohl ahm Ha’shem n’vee’im, kee yee’tayn Ha’shem et roo’choh ah’lay’hem,” [Joshua], are you jealous for my sake? Would that the entire People of G-d could be Prophets, if G-d would just place His spirit upon them!

In our 5764-2004 analysis of parashat Beha’alotecha, we noted that, according to tradition, the prophecies of Eldad and Medad were greatly upsetting to Joshua. Eldad and Medad predicted that Moses would soon pass away and Joshua will lead the people into the Promised Land. While Joshua was horrified by this prophecy, according to the Midrash, the great Moses reacted calmly and said, “If my time is up, 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 am gone.”

In that earlier analysis we focused on the unique leadership qualities of Moses, and how rare indeed it is to find a leader with the self-awareness and confidence to retire at the proper time with grace and equanimity. Not infrequently are we confronted with talented leaders who hang on long after they are no longer capable of properly fulfilling their responsibilities.

The episode in parashat Beha’alotecha underscores far more than just the great humility and self-awareness of Moses. With unparalleled faith in the Jewish people, Moses boldly affirms that he has no monopoly on spiritual gifts and that in fact every Jew has the potential of being a spiritual leader. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) articulates this very beautifully when he says (Numbers 11:29):

….the spiritual gifts of God are in no way dependent on office or profession…the lowliest of the nation could be considered as equally worthy of the spirit of God as the first official in the highest office. But Moses’ answer to Joshua remains for all teachers and leaders as the brilliant example they should keep before their eyes as the highest ideal aim of their work,…to make themselves superfluous, and that the people of all classes and ranks reach such a spiritual level that they no longer require teachers and leaders.

In so many ways, the episode of Elded and Medad underscores the uniqueness and greatness of Moses. Were it not for the fact that the greatest leader in all of Jewish history felt himself unworthy of being a leader and begged for assistance, the other worthy leaders of Israel would never have had a chance to shine or share their talents. Nehama Leibowitz (famed Israeli Bible teacher, 1905-1997) points out insightfully that,

Moses’ failure to rise to the occasion in the first place, when he spurned the mission and high office of leadership bestowed on him by G-d, is transformed into victory. His unwillingness to bear the burden of leadership alone, led the Al-mighty to confront him with a severer test. Moses proved, however, that his heart was completely untouched by envy, and that he was ready to bestow his spirit elsewhere, and even regard without envy the granting by G-d of His spirit directly to whomever he chose.

If the humility of Moses does not fully highlight his unparalleled greatness, then surely his response to Joshua at the moment when his authority was being keenly tested reveals the true mettle of this man. “Would that the entire people of G-d could be prophets, if G-d would but place His spirit upon them!” To whom was Moses referring when he says that it should only be G-d’s will to make all the people prophets? Were his comments not directed at the very same people who had said to Moses in Egypt when he intervened on their behalf (Exodus 5:21) “You have made us odious in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants to place a sword in his hands to murder us”? Were his comments not directed at the very same people who had seen the ten plagues in the land of Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land, saw Egyptians pursuing them and cried out to Moses (Exodus 14:11-12), “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness? What is it that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt…for it is better that we should serve Egypt than we should die in the Wilderness!”? Were his comments not directed at the very same Israelites who saw the miracles of the splitting of the Red Sea, and yet could not resist the idolatrous temptations and made for themselves a Golden Calf?! Were these not the same Israelites who tested G-d ten times (Numbers 14:22 and Mishneh Avot 5:6) at the waters of the Red Sea, at the bitter waters of Marah, with the waters of Refidim, who complained about the manna and the lack of meat, who joined with the scouts who came back with the evil reports of the land of Canaan? And yet these are the people of whom Moses says, “Would that the entire people of G-d could be prophets if only G-d would put his spirit upon them?”

What does all this really tell us about Moses? Beyond the fact that it tells us that this meekest of all men was not at all threatened by having to share the crown of leadership with 70 others, it in fact reveals to all Moses’ absolute and total unconditional love for the Jewish people and his faith in their talents and trustworthiness. Everyone in Israel can be a leader, declares Moses! Everyone in Israel can be a teacher of Torah! Everyone in Israel can be a Moses!

Who but Moses could or would have such positive and optimistic things to say about the Jewish people? And who had more reason not to have faith in the Jewish people than Moses? There is no more effective way of ego building, and nothing more faith-provoking than for someone to have faith in others who seem to be deserving of little or no faith! If the Jewish people have accomplished anything in their long history (and I would argue that they have been extraordinarily successful in their mission), it is primarily due to the fact that the first leader of the people of Israel had absolute faith in the people, when others saw them as thoroughly unworthy. It was that sense of encouragement, derived from the extraordinary faith that Moses had in them, that eventually gave the Jewish people the fortitude to forge ahead and to accomplish.

Ash’ray’chem Yis’ra’el, hay’ach Ha’ka’dosh Ba’ruch Hoo chee’bayv et’chem,” How blessed are you O’Israel, how much G-d loved you (Torat Kohanim, end of parashat Vayeira). How fortunate are you O’ Israel to have been blessed with a leader of the caliber of Moses!

May you be blessed.