Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Ha’alotkha/ June 5, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




On Leadership in Israel


Rabbi Dr. Pinhas Hyman

Department of Talmud and School of Education


The first half of the book of Numbers [1] deals with the first two years after the exodus from Egypt, a period in which Moses’ leadership was strongly put to the test.   The crisis peaked when the people set off from the safe haven of Mount Sinai and began their journey through the great and terrifying wilderness, towards the land of Israel.   Certain segments of population were prompted by the harsh reality to assert needs and/or wishes that were out of line and that shook the emergent edifice of government and justice.   According to the literal text of Scripture, the Israelite camp began to encounter difficulties from the second month of its journeys:

… 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”):

The riffraff [2] 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 Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.   Now our gullets are shriveled.   There is nothing at all!   Nothing but this manna to look to!”(11:4)

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 (11:31-34).

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 (11:11-14).

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.

Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you.  I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone (16-17).

 The 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 Egypt.   So, for example, when Moses was appointed to his mission at the burning bush, he was told (Ex. 3:16):   “Go and assemble the elders of Israel.”   Numbers Rabbah, ch. 15, on the text we cited above stresses the nobility and devotion of those elders:

Gather for Me (Num.11:16) – were there not already elders?  For it was said in Egypt, “Go and assemble the elders of Israel.”   So why did the Holy One, blessed be He, tell Moses, “Gather for Me seventy elders?”   . . . When the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders,” Moses said to G-d:  “Lord of the Universe, I do not know who is deserving and who not.”   He said to him (ibid.), “of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people” – may the same elders and officers who let themselves receive beatings in Egypt over the quota of bricks now come and receive this great office.  


In the above Midrash we learn that the elders in Egypt took the brunt of the beatings intended for the Jewish slaves on their own backs. Not many days after the splitting of the Red Sea, after the trial of the bitter water at Marah (Exodus 15:27), “they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there beside the water.”  Twelve springs and seventy palms would seem to be a metaphor for the tribes of Israel and the seventy elders. [3] Somewhat later, at Mount Sinai, we are told:

Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar...  Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the G-d of Israel...   Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld G-d, and they ate and drank (Ex. 24:1-11).


But if the institution of elders was found in Egypt, and after the Exodus at Marah and again at Mount Sinai, why did Moses have to establish a new body of elders in the desert? What happened to the elders who accompanied the exodus from Egypt?   What happened to the venerated elders who ascended Mount Sinai along with Moses and experienced the divine glory?  Why did Moses have to appoint elders now, as if without them he would have been ruling all on his own?  The same Midrash cited above deals with these questions:

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 Mount Sinai and saw the Divine Presence – “they beheld    G-d, and they ate and drank” (Ex. 24:11).  They had acted with levity and deserved to be burned then and there, the elders along with Nadab and Abihu.  But since the day of giving the Torah was dear to the Holy One, blessed be He, He did not want to strike them on that very day.


“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. 11:11); 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. 11:14-15).

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 Israel’s elders.”

The Midrash indicates that there were indeed elders who served along with Moses, but when they were called to ascend Mount Sinai they did not prove adequate to this spiritual mission; their behavior was tainted with levity and an inappropriate leaning towards materiality.   The leadership of the Hebrews in Egypt had been a sort of ethnic, tribal, communal leadership.   For this sort of leadership all the elders were well-suited.  But when they arrived at Mount Sinai it became clear that a different sort of leadership was required; spiritual leadership that could instill values, give the people a new identity as a chosen people, a people destined to be holy.

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 Mount Sinai could not be of any help, for they themselves were tainted with the same cravings and material demands that the riffraff had. 

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 Israel.   If the leadership is not fit, it must be changed.

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 Mount Sinai; but they never reached Kibroth-hattaavah, for they died at Mount Sinai under the most egregious circumstances:

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai he agreed with the people that he would come down at the end of forty days.  When he was late in returning, as it says, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down” (Ex. 32:1), all the Israelites turned to the elders and said to them:  Moses agreed with us that he would come down at the end of forty days, and now it is six hours later, yet he has not returned, and we do not know what has happened to him; “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Ex. 32:1).   Upon hearing this, they said to them:  Why are you vexing Him who did all these miracles and wonders for you?  But they did not listen to them and killed them; and when Hur stood up against them with strong rebuke, they rose up against him and killed him as well.   When the Lord forgave them, he said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy…” in place of the seventy who were killed sanctifying My name; for it is written, “He shatters mighty men without number and sets others in their place” (Job 34:24). [4]

Thus we see that the wonderful elders who protected the people during their bondage in Egypt were of two levels of faithfulness – the best of them were killed by the people when they demanded the golden calf, and the weak compromisers, who were willing to give in to the riffraff, remained alive until given their punishment at Kibroth-hattaavah.   Moses knew what quality person he was seeking.  He remained true to his way, and in the end was rewarded by being given reinforcement by new colleagues who were as faithful as he.

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.”

[1] According to Rashi on Numbers 20:1.

[2] Most commentators interpret the obscure Hebrew word asafsuf as the mixed multitude that left Egypt along with the Israelites, but some sources view it the other way around, claiming that it actually refers to the leaders of the people.   See below.

[3] See Rashi’s commentary, based on the midrash.

[4] Loc. sit.