Rewards for Those Who Don’t Seek the Limelight | Parashat Behaalotcha

Finding good leaders for our congregations is an ongoing challenge, one that exists whether you are in Alaska or New Zealand. This week’s portion offers us guidance in finding the right leaders, in the story of two very minor characters.

I’ve never met a person with the Hebrew name Eldad or Medad. These figures rarely make it to the Bible’s top ten. Their names seem contrived in their rhyming. The names remind us of Almodad, mentioned in the genealogies after the Flood and before the Building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10:26), the oldest son of Joktan. “Al moded”, literally means, the one who isn’t counted. Eldad and Medad are the two who remain in the camp after Moses calls 70 leaders forward to help him bear the burden of the ever complaining Israelites.

As the preeminent medieval Biblical commentator, Rashi, explains, the problem was arithmetic. God asked for 70 elders, and 70 is a great number. It reminds us of the 70 who went down to Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus, of the 70 nations of the world, and of the 70 members who will sit in the Sanhedrin, but 70 isn’t divisible by 12. None of the tribes was willing to have their cohort reduced in order to make the math work. The Talmud discusses this at length (Sanhedrin 17a). Perhaps these two men were modest, humble individuals who wanted to spare the community the fighting that might result if there were 72 leaders but only opportunities for 70 prophets. They knew that Moses was going to have everyone pick lots, where 70 would say “elder” and 2 would be blank and so, to avoid trouble, they did not go up with the others.

Alternatively, in Tz’enah Ur’enah ( Bamidbar, page 734), it is told that Eldad and Medad did go up to the lottery, but they arrived a little late, after 68 of the elders had received their chosen slips marked “elder” and two had received blank slips, leaving two more marked “elder” for Eldad and Medad. “They did not want to take the slips, saying: “Let them remain for the two elders who chose the blank slips, for they deserve to be elders more than we, even if God prefers us.”

Rabbi Shimon interprets things differently. It wasn’t humility exactly. In his mind, Eldad and Medad did not go up because they feared the rejection and the embarrassment of receiving the blank lot.

But Medad and Eldad were vindicated. Though they were not with the others, still the spirit of God rested up on them and they prophesied in the camp, scaring Joshua. Joshua had already witnessed several challenges to Moses’s authority. Joshua understood the role of the 70 elders as bolstering Moses’ position, but feared these two free lancers would challenge him. Moses by contrast was not dismayed. He proclaimed that there was no monopoly on the Divine Spirit and welcomed these different voices. Why this difference in approach? It flowed from their experiences and their goals. Joshua was trying to shape an institution. Given his own personal experience, he saw training as important, while Moses came into leadership at the stage of religious development where authority came from the spirit. God spoke to Moses at the burning bush: he was no one’s apprentice.

Eldad and Medad live on in apocryphal writings, lost to us except for a fragment, where they are Moses’ relatives through Amram’s other wife (Targum Yonatan), and in the Midrash where it is suggested that Joshua’s upset was because they prophesied Moses’ death. There is also a suggestion that their prophesy extended further into the future, to the end of time wars of Gog and Magog.

Perhaps those who have served on boards and committees will identify with the somewhat cynical suggestion that Joshua’s demand- “kelaim” – means not destroy them or lock them up, but instead, assign to them the burden of leadership, then they will be too busy to prophesy any further.

I often hear congregational leaders wishing that new people would join them in leadership, with new ideas and new energy. But I have also seen new people turn up at a meeting, only to have their every suggestion shot down with a “yes, but.” There may be a gap between how open we believe ourselves to be, and our actions when confronted with different ways of doing things.

We also say we are looking for new leaders, but when new people turn up who in age or gender, race or background, don’t fit the model we have previously depended on, they go unseen. We are forgetting the teaching found in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah (Chapter 10), perhaps made more famous in the New Testament, but an important reminder to us nonetheless: “I bring the heaven and the earth as My witness, whether Gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or maidservant, the Spirit of God wells upon each individual in accordance with how they act.”

Moses, the most humble of all men, is a great role model of ego-free leadership. He only saw blessing in every Israelite reaching Maimonides’s fully actualized state of consciousness which would allow them to be prophets as well.

When someone comes with new ideas and even challenges the status quo, we must be able to recognize their potential and welcome them. Not everyone who asks a question is Korach, seeking power for himself and thereby diminishing the power of existing leadership. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests, some are like Eldad and Medad whose activity increases the influence of the institution, even if they are not in complete lock step.

In seeking leaders for our congregations we would do well to look beyond those who like to be in charge, and seek out those whose special gifts will enrich our community. Their humility recommends them to leadership as we were taught in Tanchuma Vayikrah: “Whoever flees from leadership, leadership pursues him.”

Tz’enah Ur’enah The Classic Anthology of Torah Lore and Midrashic Commentary, Mesorah Publications, 1983

Korach (5773) – Power versus Influence, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks-

The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: their titles and fragments by Montague Rhodes James, Google Books


About the author:

Rabbi Melanie Aron has been serving Congregation Shir Hadash since 1990. She trained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati as well as the New York campus, and was ordained in 1981. She is also very involved with various interfaith activities including People Acting in Community Together, Silicon Valley Faces and in interfaith dialogues with the Muslim community.