This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Betsy Morgan
Sefer Bamidbar begins with the Jews’ preparation to journey into Israel, because at this point, they have been camped at Har Sinai for almost a year. In this time the Jews have been receiving commandments and learning the laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments. One matter to be settled before setting out is the place of Moshe’s father-in-law. Amidst the preparations, Moshe addresses Chovev, classically understood to be Yitro:
… We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel.
[Chovev] said to [Moshe] , I won’t go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace.
[Moshe] said, Please don’t leave us, for because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert and you will be our guide (Bamidbar 10:29-31)
It is not surprising Moshe is looking to Yitro for guidance. In Sefer Shmot around the time of Ten Commandments, Yitro takes notice of the effect of Moshe’s time consuming responsibilities, “You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Shmot 18:18) and offers advice to alleviate the burden. Yitro suggests a hierarchy of worthy judges so Moshe need only deal with the most trying of cases, while the Jews gain better access to the law. Yitro describes these worthy judges to be “men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain” (Shmot 18:21). These are the ideal Jews who “shall judge the people” (Shmot 18:22). Yitro’s observation and advice strikes Moshe as a good idea, and he sets up the system as described.
Yitro gives sage advice—to delegate responsibility. However, this legal delegation is insufficient to entirely relieve the burden the Jews pose. After Moshe’s pleading with Yitro to stay, the Torah records the growing unrest in the camp. Moshe cries out to G-d:
“…Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?
Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers?
Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, “Give us meat to eat.”
Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. (Bamidbar 11:11-14)
After only one year of leading the Jews since the Exodus, Moshe is reaching his limit. The solution here is very similar to that of Yitro’s.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people’s elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You.
I will come down and speak with you there, and I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone. (Bamidbar 11:16-17)
In Shmot the Jews gain judges, shoftim to hand down G-d’s law, and in Bamidbar they gain leaders, shotrim to disperse G-d’s message. In fact, in Bamidbar Raba 16:25, the appointment of the 70 elders is said to be as beloved (chovev) to G-d as the day of Matan Torah. The day of Matan Torah is when G-d comes in the thickness of the cloud so that “the nation will listen to [His] speaking with [Moshe] and they will also believe in [Moshe] forever” (Shmot 19:9). G-d wants a similar outcome to Matan Torah, when the Jews accept Moshe’s authority, but this time it should apply to the 70 elders. More than this, I think this midrash is pointing to a desire to recreate that day of mutual passion, when all the Jews were appointed to be a “kingdom of Priests and a holy nation” (Shmot 19:6) and they respond to the call. Additionally, the use of “chovev” in the midrash brings to mind Chovev, the name of Yitro used in our Parsha, relating to his contribution in Sefer Shmot which enabled law to be dispersed more effectively. An assembly of 70 men will become leaders along with Moshe, to become like Moshe.
The systems presented in Sefer Shmot and Sefer Bamidbar complete each other. One partially “creates” more Moshes, taking his place, but only in his legal role. Therefore the necessary education is a straightforward course in knowing the laws. However, we must remember it’s not just knowing the laws that made these judges fit, because they had a pre-requisite personality. The second system is to dramatically lower the ratio between “Moshe” and Jews by more fully “creating” Moshe figures. To be fully trained, these elders must encounter G-d inside the beautiful and shielded Tent of Meeting, just as Moshe does.
Yet, in the end, we maintain a system of one recognized leader. In the remainder of the Torah, we are aware of Moshe’s leadership alone, and then Yehoshua’s when Moshe passes the mantle. We never hear about these specific judges or the 70 elders again. Perhaps their personal legacy ends with them, but they do establish for us a model of knowledge based education, to know the laws, as well as experiential education, encountering G-d in the Tent of Meeting. Both of these methods are only half of the requirement to be a leader. The other half is the correct personality that directs one towards upright and meritorious behavior. With this guidance, perhaps we can live our laws with the vigor and rigour of Matan Torah.
Betsy Morgan (SBM 2013, 2014) is a Sophomore at Drexel University majoring in Materials Science and Engineering.