Rabbi David Walk
The book of Numbers is the hardest of the five books of Moshe to characterize. It seems that just when you've figured out the book's theme, it changes direction. A major turn in the book's course takes place right in the middle of this week's Torah reading. The parsha begins with a continuation of the information about travel through the desert. Then just when we've decided that the travail of travel is our major focus, there is a famous two verse interlude. These two statements are still used in synagogues throughout the world when we remove and return the Torah scrolls to the Aron Kodesh: So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. And when it came to rest he would say, Repose O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of
It is lesson number two that I want to focus on. Moshe is instructed to gather 70 elders who have the confidence of the people. Then the Torah describes an induction ceremony unlike any we're used to. Part of Moshe's prophetic power is distributed amongst the candidates. The symbolism of this act is very potent. The community must see the new leaders as legitimate continuity of the previous regime. The symbolic nature of this event is seen from the fact that this divine inspiration was temporary. These men displayed their new found abilities for only the duration of the ceremony. Then comes the unexpected twist in the story. Two men continued to show prophetic prowess after the service was over. Traditionally we understand those two individuals, Eldad and Meidad as having been invited to join the assembly of elders at the Mishkan, but they refrained from participating out of modesty, and remained in the camp. The understanding is that really 72 were invited (six from each tribe), but the desired number (70) was achieved through the humility of Eldad and Meidad.
But who were Eldad and Meidad? Even though we really don't know, the Sages are loathe to have unidentified characters floating around the text. So, a background story is provided for these clearly honorable personages. One opinion is that they were half brothers of Moshe and Aharon from an interim marriage of their mother Yocheved. According to another opinion, Eldad was really Avidan ben Gidoni, the nasi or chief of the tribe of Binyamin, and Meidad was Kemu'el ben Shiftan, the nasi of the tribe of Ephraim (34:21-24). The 70 members of the Sanhedrin died in the wilderness, but according to the same Midrashic sources, Eldad and Meidad merited to enter Eretz Yisrael as residual guidance for the new generation.
Very often when we think about our leaders, we think of individuals of outsized egos, enjoying the prestige and perks of power. We yearn for rulers like Cincinnatus, returning to his farm; Harry Truman, quietly retired in
The second instance of Moshe's anti-arrogance persona is painful. His siblings, Miriam and Aharon, spiritual giants in their own right, gossip about him. The nature of the lashon hara is not clear (and will not be pursued here), but it was about his wife Zipora. The underlying reason for the gossip seems to be jealousy, which I believe is the most common reason for sibling rivalry. They complain, and say, "Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn't He spoken to us, too (Numbers 12:2)?" If only our response to the success of a sib would be pride and joy for our beloved family member, this would be a better (and less bloody) world. However, our major concern is the reaction of Moshe. Zilch, nada, absolutely nothing. If Moshe cared, it didn't show to the outside world who was watching very carefully. This thick skinned lack of response spurs the Torah to inform us of Moshe's greatest leadership trait: Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth (verse 3). There you have it, the most important characteristic for great leadership, modesty. That quality that makes leadership about the people, not about the leader, is the difference between inspired leaders and demagogues. Many leaders throughout history have fooled the people, but ultimately, you can't fool all of the people all the time, as one of history's truly inspirational leaders once said.
Before the book of Numbers goes on to catalogue a number of challenges to Moshe's leadership it clearly states the criteria for superior leadership, and Moshe is the yardstick by which all other leaders will be measured. May we be blessed to find and recognize such leadership in our times and countries.
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