Parashat BeHa’alotkha 5774 – Moshe’s Leadership

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְ-הוָה נְבִיאִים

Parashat BeHa’alotkha bridges the end of Bnei Yisrael’s stay at Har Sinai to the beginning of their journey to the Plains of Moab and the land of Israel. Trouble begins immediately, as Moshe faces challenges to his leadership on all levels, from “each person at the entrance to their tent” (Bamidbar 11:10), to his own family (Bamidbar 12). These challenges are part of a larger string of narratives in Sefer Bamidbar dealing with issues of Equality and Leadership. The stories found at the end of Parashat BeHa’alotkha, in Bamidbar 11 & 12, discuss these issues in context of Moshe’s Leadership specifically, and in doing so, highlight the very foundation of biblical social structure, and the very nature of prophecy.

Bamidbar 11 opens with the complaints of the people, and Moshe’s reaction to the people. Moshe goes to the people and professes his inability to bear their weight (11:10-15). ‘א responds by validating Moshe’s concerns. Moshe says that he cannot lead alone (11:14), and ‘א responds by appointing 70 elders to lead alongside him (11:16). These 70 elders are gathered with Moshe to the Mishkan and ‘א overflows Moshe’s Spirit on to them, and they prophesy (11:17).[1] The problem that this raises is that if they are sharing in the prophetic spirit of Moshe, then Moshe’s hitherto unquestioned status as Leader of the Nation, not to mention Greatest of the Prophets, suddenly becomes shaky. The obvious solution for this dilemma, that Moshe is the one in charge of the bestowal of Prophecy on the Elders, and therefore he remains in charge, is made problematic by the existence of Eldad and Medad. Eldad and Medad decide not to come to the Mishkan, and yet despite this, they prophesy anyway, in the camp (11:26). These two prophets are outside the framework established by Moshe, and thus represent a direct challenge to his leadership.

This problem is addressed by Yehoshua, who calls upon Moshe to silence Medad and Eldad (11:28). Moshe’s response is somewhat astounding. “And Moses said to him: ‘Are thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”[2] (11:29). With this simple response, Moshe tells Yehoshua that he should not be concerned for Moshe’s sake. In Moshe’s eyes, the ideal would be that all of Bnei Yisrael would be prophets, if not for the fact that ‘א had clearly chosen only him to be the prophetic leader of the nation. Moshe doesn’t see himself as inherently special. Rather, anyone could receive this level of prophecy and leadership, if only ‘א would bestow it upon them.

The final story of Parashat BeHa’alotkha is one of the more difficult stories to deal with in the Torah. Miriam and Aharon, Moshe’s siblings, challenge both his spousal choice (12:1), and his right to lead (12:2).  “And they said: ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Has He not also spoken with us?” If ‘א spoke equally to all of them, then by what right could Moshe claim to lead? It would certainly be possible to answer that Moshe was simply better, naturally more fit to lead, but instead ‘א answers that their premise was wrong. While they saw their prophecy was being equal to Moshe’s, in fact it was not.

“And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and he beholds the depiction of the Lord; Therefore why are you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?” (12:6-8)

Moshe’s leadership is not a function of a greater innate stature than others, but rather of superior prophecy. Moreover, it’s not what moshe can do that makes him the leader, but the manner in which ‘א comes to him that does so.

Sefer Bamidbar has to confront the issues inherent in the growth of a nation. After receiving the majority of their laws at the foot of Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael begin to travel toward the land of Israel. In Israel, they will face all of the challenges involved in the running of a society, and the roots of those issues are here in Sefer Bamidbar. The primary issue of the first few books of Nevi’im is that of Leadership: who is fit to lead, how do they relate to those being led, etc. In Sefer Bamidbar, the leader in question is Moshe. How does he relate to the rest of Bnei Yisrael? Is he a part of them, or separate? Both? These questions get raised forcefully and directly, and the answer comes in kind. Moshe isn’t inherently better or different than the people, he has simply been chosen by ‘א for a specific purpose. Anyone could be chosen. In fact, Moshe seems to like the idea of everyone being chosen, as he is. That, however, is not his choice to make. What makes Israelite prophecy unique is the fact that the prophets of Tanakh are messengers sent by ‘א for a specific purpose.[3] Our purpose is not for us to decide, it comes from ‘א. It was ‘א who chose Moshe to be a prophet and the leader of the nation. It is ‘א who chooses the purpose of each person. It’s our job to remember that. We should not take an apparently superior purpose as a sign that we are inherently better than anyone else, but rather we should take time to recall, as Moshe did, that all peoples are great, and each person is imbued with divine purpose.

[1] Prophesy as an indicator of appointment to Civil Office is not unheard of in Tanakh. See Shemuel Alef 10:9-13.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org

[3] Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel.

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