“Eldad and Medad”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the many fascinating topics in this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’alot’cha, is the story of Eldad and Medad.

Eldad and Medad are mentioned only twice in the Bible, both times in Numbers 11, and their appearance on the scene seems almost coincidental. Yet, they play a significant role in this week’s Torah portion, and, by extension, in Jewish history as well.

Parashat B’ha’alot’cha is filled with repeated expressions of the Israelite people’s disenchantment–despite the constant Divine miracles they witnessed during their lives and the daily wonders they beheld. Because of their lack of faith and their concern about how they would be able to survive in the wilderness, the people continuously grumble. The “Mitonenim,” the complainers (Numbers 11:1), cry out, and G-d quickly punishes them. The “Asafsoof,” the mixed multitudes of Egyptians who left Egypt together with the Jewish people (Numbers 11:4-5), express their dissatisfaction with the manna–the heavenly food. They cry out, Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt, free of charge; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, the garlic.

Frustrated and disillusioned, Moses also cries out to G-d (Numbers 11:14-15), “Loh oo’chal ah’no’chee l’vah’dee la’sayt et kol ha’ahm ha’zeh, kee cha’ved mee’me’nee,” I cannot alone carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me. And, if this is how You [G-d] deal with me, then kill me now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and let me not see my own evil.

G-d then instructs Moses (Numbers 11:16-7), “Es’fah lee shiv’eem eesh mee’zik’nay Yisrael,” Gather to Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be elders of the people and its officers, and take them to the Tent of Meeting… And I will place of the spirit that is upon you, on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear alone.

Despite G-d’s assurance to Moses that He will feed the people, Moses remains skeptical. Says Moses (Numbers 11:21-22), Six hundred thousand foot men are the people in whose midst I am, and yet You say that I shall give them meat, and they shall eat meat for a month of days! Can all the sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them and suffice? Even if all the fish of the sea be gathered for them, would it suffice?

G-d responds succinctly (Numbers 11:23), “Ha’yad Hashem tik’tzar,” Is the hand of G-d limited? Now you will see whether My word comes to pass or not.

The Torah states that Moses then gathered seventy men from among the elders of the people. G-d descended in a cloud and spoke to them. His spirit rested on them, and they prophesied, but they did not do so again.

According to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), Moses initially chose seventy-two men, six from each of the twelve tribes, not including the Levites. He then placed seventy-two lots into a box, seventy marked with the word “Zaken,” elder, and two additional blank lots. The seventy men who selected the lots with the word “elder,” were inducted into the Sanhedrin, the society of elders, the Supreme Court of Israel. The two who chose blank lots, returned to the camp.

The Bible, in Numbers 11:26, states that two men remained behind in the camp. The name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other was Medad. And the spirit rested upon them since they had been among the recorded ones, but they had not gone out to the tent, instead they prophesied in the camp.

According to Rashi and most commentators, the prophecy of Eldad and Medad was, “Moshe met, Yehoshua mach’nis,” Moses shall die, and Joshua will lead the people into the land of Israel.

The Bible (Numbers 11:27-29) then states that a young man ran up to Moses, and cried, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” At that moment Joshua, the son of Nun, the loyal servant of Moses, spoke up and said, “My lord, Moses, incarcerate them.” In one of the most moving and dramatic moments of the Bible, the humble Moses responds to Joshua, “Are you being zealous for my sake? I only wish that the entire people of G-d could be prophets, if G-d would only place His spirit upon them.”

My dentist and dear friend (probably an oxymoron!), Dr. Stuart Blaustein, asked an obvious but profound question. Why is Moses so accepting of the prophecy of Eldad and Medad, who predict that Moses himself will die, and that Joshua will lead the people into the land of Israel? What could be a more abrasive challenge than such a prophecy? Why is Moses not angry? Why doesn’t he challenge or rebuke them? Instead, Moses, admiring their nobility, prays that there should be many more Eldads and Medads in the camp of Israel.

And yet, when Korach challenges the authority of Aaron and the priesthood, Moses reacts harshly, demanding that G-d create a new entity that will destroy the rebels, and rid the world of these nefarious renegades.

What did Moses see in Eldad and Medad that was so different from Korach?

Korach’s complaint to G-d was that Moses and Aaron had usurped all the authority for themselves, seeking personal pride and glory at the expense of others, especially the other Levites. Korach recruits allies to join him, from the lowest of the low, Dathan and Abiram, the long-time enemies of Moses. He collects 250 men from the tribe of Reuben, inciting them to rebel, to the point where they are actually willing to risk their lives by offering the sacred incense sacrifice, the Ketoret.

Eldad and Medad, on the other hand, are modest. So modest, that even though they were entirely worthy of being prophets, they chose to remain in the camp. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 11, cites Rabbi Shimon, who says Eldad and Medad remained in the camp because when Moses began to select the elders, they said of themselves that they were unworthy of the honor, so they went and hid themselves in the camp.

It may also be that Moses did not regard the prophecy of Eldad and Medad as belligerent, but rather as a life-affirming and reassuring prophecy. The words of Eldad and Medad were intended to reassure the people that even though G-d had decreed that the elderly leaders, Moses and Aaron, would die before entering the Promised Land, the people would surely enter Canaan, under a new and worthy great leader, Joshua. They proclaimed: There indeed is a future for the people of Israel beyond the life of Moses and Aaron! Eldad and Medad’s prophecy was not intended to cause the people to lose faith, but rather to enhance their faith. It was not meant to demoralize the people but to mobilize the people, to strengthen them for the very exciting future ahead.

Eldad and Medad are two relatively unknown Biblical personages, yet, their powerful message and actions continue to resonate loud and clear.

Where are the contemporary Eldads and Medads today when we need them so desperately? 

May you be blessed.