PARASHAT Beha’alotcha — Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
When in a position of leadership, how would you say you deal with chaos? Do you get angry and lash out at people? Do you retreat and ignore the chaos? If there’s a lot of complaining, do you give in to demands and give people what they want even if doing so might be impractical, costly or unwise? In truth, exhibiting leadership in hard times is always a challenge.
This week’s parashah comes along to offer us guidance. In Beha’alotcha, we encounter Moses at his wit’s end, dealing with a restless, hungry, grumbling populace. All they’ve had to eat in the wilderness for two years has been manna, a dew-like substance. They are tired of manna and long for meat. They wax nostalgic for all the foods they ate while slaves in Egypt. In his appeal to God for relief, Moses cries out: I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (Numbers 11:14-15).
God’s response to Moses is twofold. One response is to attempt to put an end to the people’s whining about meat once and for all. God instructs Moses to say to the people: The Lord will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you (11:18:20). After God makes good on this promise/threat, God then inflicts the people with a severe plague.
It is clear from God’s outburst that God is every bit as fed up as Moses! Tempers are flaring all around.
God’s other response is more measured and provides a lesson about leadership. To Moses’ credit, he admitted to God that “I cannot carry all his people by myself.” Thus, God instructs Moses to enlist others to help share the burden of leadership: 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 (11:16-17).
Though expressed in desperate terms, Moses’ appeal for help is in and of itself exemplary. He noticed his limitations and knew that alone he would not be able to continue to lead in any responsible way. The job of leading Israel was wearing on Moses and he was feeling inadequate to the point of wishing for death. Yet, he had the clarity of mind to believe he could continue if only God would lend a hand.
God did, indeed, lend a hand, but rather than simply intervene by providing quail to the Israelites, God also gave Moses a good piece of advice: share the task of leadership with others. Moses had done this earlier at the suggestion of his father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 14:16-18), but for whatever reasons God perceived that it was time for a new or, perhaps, an additional, leadership team.
What made this leadership team distinctive was that all the elders received the gift of prophecy, i.e. they could hear God directly and speak on God’s behalf. This gift had previously been reserved for Moses. With the elders joining Moses in speaking on behalf of God, Moses was no longer perceived as an autocrat by the people, God’s word attained a new level of Truth because it wasn’t coming from the mouth of one man, and the people now had others they could talk to about their problems, knowing that these were already well-respected leaders within each tribe. With this leadership team in place, Moses was more easily able to manage the chaos and discontentment among the masses.
Meanwhile, two other elders by the names of Eldad and Medad, who were not in the Tent of Meeting with the other seventy, also received the gift of prophecy and began to prophesize in the camp (Numbers 11:24-26). Rather than restrain Eldad and Medad, as Joshua urged him (11:28), Moses embraced the idea of having additional leaders prophesying among the people. Moses had already demonstrated his willingness to share authority with the seventy elders in the Tent of Meeting. Now he was showing an even greater generosity of spirit. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!” he said (11:29).
From Moses’ example, we learn the importance of sharing responsibility with others. It often takes a team of leaders to tackle big challenges. Moreover, allowing people outside the immediate leadership circle to assume the mantel of leadership serves to empower the people to take responsibility for themselves and not rely only on others to solve their problems for them. Like a candle’s flame that is not diminished when it ignites another candle, Moses was not less of a leader or prophet because he dared to share authority with others. On the contrary, Moses’ status as a great leader is significantly bolstered by the generosity, humility, confidence and wisdom he exhibited not only in accepting God’s direction regarding the elders but also in his decision to allow others beyond an elite group to assume authority as well.
The next time we are faced with a challenging situation that requires level-headed leadership, may we recall this moment of brilliance in which Moses reached out for help and lovingly embraced the leadership of all those whom God endowed with the will and ability to lead.