“Will you people just stop whining?” That’s what Moses must be thinking in this week’s portion, Beha’alotcha. (Numbers 8:-12) Moses has just received yet more detailed instructions about purifying and offering and marching in order. Out in the wilderness, traveling to God- knows- where (literally!), the people start complaining again about a lack of meat. Moses has had it; he says to God, “ I’ve had enough, am I supposed to take care of them all by myself ? Just kill me now.” Moses does pretty well with the prophecy part of his job – relaying the word of God. He’s less into the actual leadership, dealing with the people themselves, and unfortunately, that’s what is needed now.
And then God answers Moses’ wish: God acknowledges that Moses doesn’t have to do it alone. God suggests convening the seventy elders to help shoulder the burden, and Moses agrees to do so. But something interesting happens just then. Two guys who were among the identified elders chose not to follow the rest into the Tent of Meeting, but rather, stayed out among the people in the camp. They acted the prophets all right; they had the spirit of God in them, and they “spoke in ecstasy”, but they did out in public, in front of all to see.
Meet Eldad and Medad. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, sees them as a threat to Moses’ status as main prophet. When Joshua hears from a young kid in the camp that Eldad and Medad are acting like prophets , Joshua comes running to Moses, “telling” on them. Moses, to his credit, disagrees, saying, “Are you jealous on my account?” (Hamikaneh atah li?) Don’t bother, Moses says. And in that one rebuff, Moses displays a remarkable leadership trait. Or maybe he was just grateful for the help.
Rashi (11th c French rabbi/winemaker) says the word “hamikaneh”, can mean both jealous or zealous. Rashi continues, “It refers to one who takes something to heart and acts with great fervor”. The word is used in another form in reference to Pinchas the Priest, in about 13 more chapters, when he skewers a couple who were going at it, in front of the Tent, God and everyone. Pinchas is called “zealous for God”, and is “rewarded” for it. Some reward: he is made High Priest, and his life as High Priest is about as scripted and restrained as one could imagine – no room for unbridled passion there.
Both Joshua and Pinchas have fallen prey to an extremist position, and they are rebuked either by word or deed. Moses tells Joshua to calm down, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” Moses was telling Joshua to open both his eyes and his mind a little wider – leadership can come from among the camp, not just the Tent.
It’s like a CEO gathering the best and brightest in the boardroom, and two of guys who are supposed to be at the big-wig table decide to talk to the admins instead, to share their passion for the company. In the Jewish community, our synagogues, institutions and organizations are facing huge changes in membership, donations, and volunteers, much of which is negative. Survey after survey confirms that when we ask people what they want from their Jewish community, they will tell us, but it often comes as a challenge to the established leadership.
Is it because we keep looking to that established leadership for the “spirit”? Eldad and Medad didn’t call for revolution; rather, perhaps they just wanted to bring that vision and ferver to the people whom it would most effect. They were the next generation of passion.
We must be open to the prophecy that comes from the camp, not just the Tent. Fixing the problems of our community may not be solved by the 70 elders anymore, especially if their vision has become stale and fixed, waiting for word to come from “on high”. Moses knew that his prophetic style was crucial to bring the people as far as he could, along the way. But if the Israelites weren’t to die out in the desert (and clearly we didn’t!) then, the communal inspiration was going to have to come from someplace else. Among the people was a good place to start. Moses was listening to Eldad and Medad then. Who’s listening now?