“The Seventy Elders: The Challenge of Jewish Leadership”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


Among the many interesting themes found in this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, is the appointment of seventy elders. In response to Moses’ complaint (Numbers 11:14), that he could not carry the burden of leading the people alone, the seventy elders are called upon to assist Moses in leading the nation.

According to tradition, these new elders were selected to replace the seventy elders who served the people in Egypt (Exodus 3:16, 4:29) who died in a heavenly fire (Numbers 11:1) because of sinfully and disrespectfully eating and drinking while perceiving the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 24:11).

In Numbers 11:16, G-d says to Moses, אֶסְפָה לִּי שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ כִּי הֵם זִקְנֵי הָעָם וְשֹׁטְרָיו, וְלָקַחְתָּ אֹתָם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ שָׁם עִמָּךְ, “Gather to Me seventy men from the elders of Israel whom you know to be the elders of the people and its officers; take them to the Tent of Meeting and have them stand there with you.”

G-d then explains to Moses that He intends to inspirit these seventy men with His spirit so they shall carry the burden of the people together with Moses, so that he would not have to bear the community’s burdens alone.

Rashi commenting on the phrase, “Gather for Me the seventy men from the elders of Israel whom you know to be the elders of the people and its officers,” explains that these seventy men are people whom Moses already knows because they had served as guards of the Israelites in Egypt during the peoples’ crushing enslavement. Rather than beat the Jewish slave-laborers to produce more bricks as the Egyptians demanded, the guards themselves were beaten. G-d tells Moses to select these heroic guards to serve as the elders of Israel, because of the great sacrifices they made on behalf of the people in the time of Israel’s enslavement.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his commentary on the Bible, Da’at Sofrim, notes that the elders of Israel were not only required to be astute, learned and wise men, but must also be known to the people as popular and sympathetic leaders and advisors. Rabbi Rabinowitz further maintains that this standard was employed when choosing leaders for Jewish communities in all future generations. Utilizing their wisdom and generosity of spirit, these insightful, G-d-fearing, humble and pleasant people were called upon to lead the nation.

According to tradition, the most salient reason for the selection of these leaders was because (Exodus 5:14), וַיֻּכּוּ שֹׁטְרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, at great personal cost, the guards of the Children of Israel defied the orders of the Egyptian taskmasters and were beaten when they refused to beat the Israelite slaves.

While Jewish leaders often face difficult challenges, the challenges of Jewish leadership are not always external. All too often, they are internal. While it is true that in this particular instance, the Hebrew guards were beaten by the Egyptian taskmasters, we know only too well that the multitudes of Israelites could be very mean and cruel to their leaders. When Pharaoh decreed after his encounter with Moses and Aaron that the Israelite slaves were no longer to be given straw (Exodus 5:21), the guards themselves confronted Moses and Aaron and condemned them for making things worse and for “placing a sword in the hands of the Egyptians to murder the people.”

Being a Jewish leader at any time and in any age is not an easy task, especially to lead people who are prone to complain and are rarely satisfied. Leadership, in general, is hardly ever truly rewarding or fulfilling. In fact, the idea of term limits for political leaders is based on the assumption that leaders who stay in power too long, are bound to lose favor, even in the eyes of their most ardent supporters.

That leaders will make mistakes is inevitable. However, their followers often go well above and beyond what is justified when criticizing them.

A good friend of mine, who is involved in outreach and, who at great personal sacrifice, has influenced many hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews to live more Jewish lives, told me that a particular person, whose family he had previously helped, came up to him recently and angrily berated him, “What do you have to show for all your work? You have no wife, no children, no family. You’re wasting your time!” The cruelty of that remark shocked me to the core. And, although I too have been subjected to abuse in my long career in Jewish engagement, I, fortunately, have never experienced that degree of venom.

In my attempts to console my friend, I reminded him of the guards in Egypt who eventually became the seventy elders of Israel, because they were beaten for refusing to beat their brother Israelites who had failed to produce sufficient bricks.

Unfortunately, this is often the price that one pays for serving in a Jewish leadership position.

I only hope that the person who said those hurtful words will come to his senses and ask forgiveness in the not too distant future.

While leadership is always challenging, Jewish leadership is often profoundly challenging.

May you be blessed.