Torah Portion of the Week—B’ha’alotecha

Among the many interesting themes found in this week’s 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, God 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.”

God 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. God 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.

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. Shabbat Shalom