by Rabbi David Ariel-Joel,
Congregation Adath Israel Brith Shalom
, Louisville, Kentucky
Let us take a look at a small segment of the ‘Be’haalot’cha’ Torah portion, a section which challenges the concept of prophecy as a leadership and ruling tool.
A young man ran and told Moshe, Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!; Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth up had been Moses’s assistant, answered, My lord, Moses, stop them! 29 But Moses replied, Are you so zealous to protect me? May all of ADONAI’s people be prophets! May ADONAI put His Spirit on all of them
!” (Num 11:27-29 CJB)
The background of this story begins to unfold at the beginning of chapter 11: ”
Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the LORD
” (Numbers 11:1). Apparently, this not a novelty: the people of Israel show a long history of grumbling and complaining. However, this time, the complaints and sense of irritability were without merit; this is a disagreement for its own sake.
God’s response is also fairly predictable. Whether these are justified complaints of the people (as before), or merely the rumblings of the impatient (as now), the response is of great anger. God of the Exodus from Egypt does not deal patiently with the idle complaints of our people: “
And when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp
” (Num 11:1).
The novelty and the plot’s twist are centered on Moses. The attentive and compassionate leader, a shepherd of his people, the one who until now placated the wrath of God as a representative of these unsatisfied complainers – responds today in despair: ”
And Moses said to the LORD, Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all these people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers
Where am I to get meat to give to all these people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”
(Num 11:11-15 TNK)
To ease the burden of the responsibility of all people on Moses, God offers the option to appoint assistants, to disperse the powers of leadership and prophesy to others instead of shouldering the burden himself. In response, Moses selects seventy elderly leaders from the tribes of Israel. Importantly, Eldad and Medad, the heroes of our story, are not selected with those seventy elders.
After appointing these assistants, Moses leaves the camp with this select group, in order to train them: ”
Then the LORD came down in a cloud and spoke to him; He drew upon the spirit that was on him and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue once the spirit lifted
” (Num 11:25 TNK).
Indeed, the elders began to prophesize at the tent of meeting. However this is a temporary investiture. Their power is short-lived since it was drawn from Moses, and it is clear that the elders were not truly real prophets.
Their power being short-lived, extending from Moses; the elders’ prophecies symbolized the lowest level of such abilities. How could prophecy such as this save the people of Israel? Would it bring about the redemption of the people of Israel? Would this help the people of Israel in their mission among the nations? Whether this could help in these missions to the end of time or short term, it is not clear what the Creator’s intentions were. How could these seventy elders truly assist Moses? Was this meant to demonstrate a passing illusion, a pretense of ‘democratization’ of the leadership, perhaps to calm the spirit of Moses, of the people, and perhaps both? Or was this an honest attempt to distribute the burden?
Let us continue and read the story in order to understand its message. The Biblical narrator turns the attention to the following unraveling of events: ”
A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp
!” (Num 11:27 TNK) Our sages teach that the source of this prophecy did not stem from Moses (as was the case of the elderly), but rather from God Himself: Moreover, this prophecy went on without interruption: ”
The prophets all prophesized and ceased, and they prophesized and did not cease
” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page17a); ”
It is said that they were prophesying and prophesying until their deaths
” (Sifre zota 11:27).
The drama continues to unfold. After the boy’s alert, Joshua – Moses’ assistant – joins the plot. Shaken, he exclaims: ”
My lord Moses, restrain them
!” (Num 11:28 TNK). Evidently, this is a classic response of a fellow of the ruling class, fearing the loss of monopoly on the prophecy, the Word of God. This can also be read as an attempt to eliminate any multi-religious or spiritual diversity among people. Joshua wants to prevent the people from hearing more than one voice of the religious leadership and spiritual prophecy, seeking for one monolithic voice.
Moses’s response is interesting: “
But Moses replied, “Are you so zealous to protect me? May all of ADONAI’s people be prophets! May ADONAI put His Spirit on all of them
!” (Num 11:29 CJB)
The week’s Torah portion comes to teach us a very important lesson, a very clear calling against any monopoly on the word of God – against any religious monopoly. No one person can come and tell us that only their words are the word of God; that only their way is the right one. On the contrary: May all of ADONAI’s people be prophets!
Moses’ first reaction – Are you so zealous to protect me? reveals his understanding of the human soul. Jealousy is a natural response; however, it may be due to (or lead to) dangerous fanaticism, endangering the future of Israel. Moses encourages and welcomes competition. He is not afraid of the many – and different – voices of prophecy.
These are the words of Moses, the man of God, after whom the Torah is called. This is our spiritual and religious heritage. Moses envisions more prophets, those who can and are committed to contribute to their people and the world. These are different voices than those that caused him to regret taking the leadership on the people. These are not passive and dependent people, rather, as Moses says – “Let them prophesize”. This is how the group will become God’s people, after his own heart.
This concept which Moses introduces has become the base of the universal mission and our vision to the world. To implement this approach, to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, there should not be heard only the voice of one prophet. We must voice out many. This is a vision of a diverse prophecy. Moses, from a position of a high and strong prophetic voice could understand what this uniqueness meant, and what its perils were. He understood even when another prophetic voice came – not from him – but rather from Eldad and Medad; from almost – perhaps literally – competitors.
From Moses until today – we in our community should be involved, to contribute together to our own success, not to fear voices challenging us.
“May all of ADONAI’s people be prophets! May God Spirit be on all of them!”