Selecting the Elders

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

There are countless fascinating and (as one friend put it) fundamental episodes in the evolution of Bnai Yisrael in Parshas Behaaloscha. One of these has to do with the incident of Eldad and Meidad and their seemingly aberrant prophecy. While many tend to focus on this unique phenomenon, a more subtle issue emerges when studying what led to this incident.
After Bnai Yisrael express their distaste for the manna, Moshe becomes upset as to the current state of affairs. He notes the nature of their complaint to God, and the difficulty of carrying the burden of the nation. He says to God (11:14):
“I alone cannot carry this entire people, for they are too burdensome for me”
Clearly, Moshe is essentially telling God that there is no way he can do the job alone. God’s answer is straight to the point (ibid:16-17):
“God said to Moshe: ‘Gather seventy men for Me, from among the elders of Israel, [men] whom you know to be the people's elders, and its officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with you. I will descend and speak there with you, and I will make greater the spirit which is upon you, and place it on them, and they will bear, along with you, the burden of the people so that you need not bear it alone’.”
At this point, one would conclude that God was setting up an “associate” program, allowing for others to take on some of Moshe’s responsibilities. However, a closer look at these verses reveals some interesting questions. For example, what does God mean about transferring the “spirit” from Moshe to the elders (elders refer to talmidei chachamim who were leaders)? And why is it so important that they all gather at the Tent (ohel moed)?
Later on, we see Moshe engaged in the process of gathering these elders. Once assembled at the ohel moed, the following takes place (ibid 25-26):
“God descended in a cloud and spoke to him, and He magnified the spirit which was upon him and He gave it unto the seventy men, [who were] the elders. When the spirit came to rest upon them they prophesied, and they did not cease. Two people remained in the camp; one's name was Eldad and the second one's name was Meidad. The spirit rested upon them; they were among those inscribed, and they did not go out to the Tent, and they prophesied in the camp.”
Rashi (ibid 26) offers an important elucidation of the actual selection of the elders:
“Among those chosen for the Sanhedrin, they were all inscribed specifically by names, and by drawing lots. Since the appropriate amount for twelve tribes was six for each tribe, except for two tribes, each of whom received only five, Moshe said: ‘No tribe will listen to me to subtract one elder from its tribe’. What did he do? He took seventy two notes, wrote "elder" on seventy and left two blank. He then chose six from each tribe, totaling seventy two. He told them, 'Take your notes from the container.' Whoever chose "elder" was sanctified; to those who chose the empty ones, he said, ‘The Omnipresent does not want you’.”
So, rather than hand pick these people, Moshe decided to use a random drawing to determine the seventy elders. Why did he choose this method, rather than just ask each tribe to bring forward the best candidates? What would be wrong if he chose more from one tribe than another?
The commentary of the Ibn Erza on the sharing of the “spirit” (ibid 17) offers an opening into this area:
“And know that spirit (ruach) is like knowledge (chachma). And if you give from the knowledge of Reuven to Shimon, Reuven will not be lacking, rather he will remain as he was. This is similar to the candle”.
In referencing “the candle”, the Ibn Ezra is alluding to an analogy of a lighting a new candle from a lit candle. There is no change in the status of the light source – yet it is able to supply the new candle with light.
The Ibn Ezra is giving us an insight into what God’s plan was, and how the instituting of these seventy elders was not a simple matter. God recognized that there would be a tremendous conflict amongst Bnai Yisrael with the introduction of these new assistants to Moshe. The relationship between Bnai Yisrael and Moshe was an intimate one, with the nation in many ways viewing Moshe as a father figure. Nobody could replace him, and Bnai Yisrael would not accept an alternate authority at this point. To simply have seventy talmidei chachamim join Moshe would not work.
The first step to overcoming this would be some sort of manifestation that God was endorsing this concept, and that the very authority of these elders emerged directly from Moshe. This is expressed in the idea of “sharing the spirit”. There were certain ideas about God that only Moshe, due to his perfection, was privy to. No person alive was able to achieve this level of knowledge of God, reflected in the unique character of Moshe’s prophecy – “panim el panim”. It would seem, based on the Ibn Ezra, that God communicated some of these ideas that only Moshe had to the other elders. In this sense, Moshe did not “lose out” in the sharing of this knowledge. What did this accomplish? Bnai Yisael (and the elders) clearly saw that the position of the elders was not as equals to Moshe, but as subordinates. Moshe’s position was unchanged. At the same time, the ability of these elders to function in their role resulted from Moshe’s unique qualities. This would also explain why the prophecy had to take place at the ohel moed. This was the place where Moshe received his communications from God. Having the elders receive the prophecy at that place demonstrated that God endorsed their roles. But with the content “taken” from Moshe, his unique position was retained.
There was another issue that concerned Moshe. He realized that the very selection process could lead to a significant problem. As we see in the upcoming parsha of Korach, there was an undercurrent of mistrust that existed within the nation. This mistrust was expressed with accusations of nepotism and favoritism, hurled at Moshe by Korach, but supported by many amongst Bnai Yisrael. Moshe clearly realized this existed prior to the incident with Korach. He sought to employ a system that would be completely removed from any sense of partiality. As a result, a lottery had to be the only solution. Each tribe would select the greatest talmidei chachamim for this role and be represented equally in the lottery. Yet only seventy could be chosen, not seventy-two. Moshe would have nothing to do with this result, avoiding any possible act of favoritism. Rashi points out that with the removal of the two, Moshe responded that this was the result of God’s will. He was showing them that it could not be pure chance that these seventy were selected, while the remaining two were excluded. Clearly, the merits of each individual is what ultimately determined who would be included and who excluded. The key here is that Moshe had no personal investment in the process, removing himself from any potential accusations. To fall prey to these (unjust) accusations would by definition destroy any potential good offered by the instituting of these elders in their new role.

Looking at this process of the selection of the elders, one can see how many different considerations came into play. On the one hand, there had to be a clear expression that these new appointees were endorsed by God – thus, they were gathered at the ohel moed. At the same time, Bnai Yisrael could not accept any replacement to Moshe. As a result, the very knowledge received by the elders came from ideas Moshe had, via God’s prophecy. Finally, Moshe ensured that the entire process was devoid of any sense of favoritism. Any act that reflected this would undermine the authority of these elders, and would further inflame the underlying misguided potential for criticism. For some, picking seventy aids to Moshe would seem to be a simple matter. Yet the Torah shows us the delicate balancing act that took place, and how chachma was the guiding principle in bringing about this selection. n