Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
On Leadership in
Rabbi Dr. Pinhas Hyman
Department of Talmud and
The first half of the book of Numbers
with the first two years after the exodus from
… They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days… The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. That place was named Taberah [from the Hebrew root b’r, “to burn”], because a fire of the Lord had broken out against them (Num.10:11-11:3).
The substance of the complaint that led to a fire of the Lord breaking out in the camp is not spelled out in the Torah, but is hinted at by the words “complaining bitterly” (Heb. mit’onenim). This event serves as a prelude and warning for a more severe event at a place called Kibroth-hattaavah (“the graves of craving”):
 in their
midst felt a gluttonous craving; and the Israelites wept and said, “If only we
had meat to eat! We remember the fish
that we used to eat free in
In response to these demands, Moses turned to the Lord to express his great frustration and request reinforcement for his leadership. Moses indeed received instructions about coping with the challenges of leadership (which we shall discuss later on), but the event itself ended quite tragically:
The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah, because the people who had the craving were buried there (-34).
Thus the second month was characterized by tragedies that appeared to stem from the vain complaints and self-centered, materialistic cravings of certain strata in the people. It could be understood that only marginal elements were involved in these incidents, their motives being base and crude and ostensibly not characteristic of the majority of the population. Moses, however, did not stand aside, aloof and uninvolved. In fact, his attempts to deal with the disturbed riffraff led him to a deep and severe crisis of his own. At the people’s outburst demanding meat to eat, Moses cried out to Heaven:
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 this 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?... I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me (-14).
On the face of it G-d’s response to Moses would seem to be a command to set up a new judicial institution – a “Sanhedrin” of elders, a court of seventy-one judges.
Me seventy of
Sages, however, perceived this story from a different perspective.
They did not see this event as establishing a
High Court, rather as concluding a series of events involving this supreme
institution, some uplifting, others disappointing.
The Bible hints in several places that the “seventy
elders” already existed as an institution from the time of the bondage in
Gather for Me (Num.11:16) – were there
not already elders? For it was said in
In the above Midrash we learn that the elders
Then He said to Moses,
“Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of
But if the institution of
elders was found in
The elders already
existed. However, when the Israelites
reached the point that “the people took to complaining” (Num. 11:1), they [the
elders] were all burned up at that very moment.
They were burned like Nadab and Abihu, for they too behaved with levity
when they ascended
“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving” (Num. 11:4) – who were the riffraff? Rabbi Simeon bar Abba and Rabbi Simeon ben Mannasiah … one of them said the riffraff were the Sanhedrin, for it says (Num. 11:16) “Gather for Me seventy elders” [a play on words, “riffraff” = asafsuf, and the root of “gather” = a – s – f ]. What is meant by, “a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp” (Num. 11:1)? At that moment Moses was saying to the Lord, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant?” (Num. ); in the past there was someone to help me bear the burden of the people, but now I am alone; for it says, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, … If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You” (Num. -15).
At that very moment
the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses to appoint other elders in place of the
former elders, as it says, “Gather for Me seventy of
The Midrash indicates
that there were indeed elders who served along with
Moses, but when they were called to ascend
Not everyone was capable
of internalizing this message. At the
great moment of G-d’s revelation
there were some people who behaved as they would in day-to-day life – “they
beheld G-d, and they ate and drank.”
They were good enough to take the people out of Egypt, but the people
who journeyed from Mount Sinai to the land of Israel was a different people, requiring
more lofty leadership, purer leadership, leadership with values and
vision. Therefore, during the crisis at Kibroth-hattaavah
the leaders who had failed at
The people’s elders and
great men died the same strange death as the riffraff.
Moses remained alone as leader, for only he
was capable of bearing the yoke. His cry
to G-d was a plea for upright, modest, spiritual colleagues who had a sense of
values and who would be fit for the job.
He was answered: there is no
compromise when it comes to leadership of the people of
Against the backdrop of
this tragic turn in the institutions of leadership, another story is told; the
elders who died in the fire that broke out against the riffraff were not the
only elders. There were other elders who
succeeded in accepting the destiny given the people at
When Moses ascended
Thus we see that the
wonderful elders who protected the people during their bondage in
Leading the chosen people towards their destiny requires several talents: patience, the ability to be self-abnegating, and the ability to accept another’s views. The Torah was not given to the ministering angels; and just the features of one person are different from another, so too are their views. Within the context of the Torah given at Sinai, tolerance leads to love of one’s fellows, toning down personal cravings and self-interest, which obstruct progress towards realizing our destiny. Moses was not looking for rubber stamps and did not relate to his fellows as having legitimacy only if they accepted his opinion. Moses was looking for brave leaders who would be true to their way, who would be uncompromising in their values, and capable of being a living example to the people who were destined to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
 According to Rashi on Numbers 20:1.
commentators interpret the obscure Hebrew word asafsuf as the mixed
multitude that left
 See Rashi’s commentary, based on the midrash.
 Loc. sit.