Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Folded into the dramatic story of Kivrot Hata’ava (see previous study) is a short narrative detailing one of the strangest events in the Torah.
Responding to Moshe’s complaint that he can no longer bear the burden of leadership alone, God commands him to assemble seventy of the nation’s elders outside the Sanctuary. When Moshe complies, God miraculously increases Moshe’s ruach hakodesh (prophetic spirit), allowing it to be shared with the elders. The elders respond with an eruption of prophecy (see following study).
The rabbis view this event as the establishment of the first Sanhedrin, the high court of seventy-one (in this case, seventy elders plus Moshe) that will serve across history as the highest legal body in the world of Jewish jurisprudence.
Suddenly, the unexpected occurs. Eldad and Medad, two individuals who are not among those gathered outside the Sanctuary, are strangely affected by these miraculous proceedings: “And the spirit rested on them; and they had been among the recorded ones, that they had not gone out to the tent, and they prophesied in the camp.”
When word of this phenomenon reaches the ears of Moshe and his protégé, Yehoshua, Moshe’s student advises swift action against the “renegade prophets.” Moshe, however, responds with equanimity: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that God would make His entire people prophets, that God would place His spirit upon them.”
Who are Eldad and Medad? Why does the Torah describe them as being “among the recorded ones”?
God carefully orchestrates the inauguration of the seventy elders into leadership. He underscores the divine source of their new powers by insisting that they gather around the Sanctuary. He demonstrates that their leadership flows from and is subordinate to Moshe by increasing Moshe’s own power so that it can be shared.
What, then, goes wrong? Why are Eldad and Medad granted a gift that should have been reserved only for participants in the inauguration ritual? Can it be that we are witnessing a “divine misfire,” that somehow God’s miraculous bounty is accidentally extended to individuals who should not receive it? Such an eventuality would seem clearly impossible when dealing with an all-powerful God, Who, by definition, cannot make mistakes. What is the intent of the Eldad and Medad narrative and what are we meant to learn from it? How, as well, does this story relate to the overall lessons learned at Kivrot Hata’ava?
According to the Talmud, the key to the story of Eldad and Medad lies in the Torah’s statement that they were “among the recorded.”
The rabbis explain that Moshe faces a difficult political dilemma as he moves to obey God’s instructions concerning the creation of the first Sanhedrin. Recognizing the importance of the step he is about to take, Moshe struggles to find a balanced leadership model that will satisfy all twelve Israelite tribes.
What shall I do? If I choose six elders from each of the twelve tribes I will end up with seventy-two candidates, two above the required number. If on the other hand, I choose five elders from each tribe, I will fall ten candidates short of the necessary seventy. Finally, if I choose five representatives from some tribes and six from others, I will create jealousy among the tribes.
As a solution, Moshe selects six elders from each tribe, for a total of seventy-two, and then sets aside seventy-two corresponding lots. He inscribes seventy of the lots with the word elder and leaves the remaining two lots blank.
When the contenders for positions on the first Sanhedrin gather around the Sanctuary, Moshe instructs each candidate to draw one lot. He informs those who select lots inscribed with the word elder: You have already been sanctified by the heavens. To those who draw blanks, on the other hand, he avows: What can I do? The Lord has not selected you. Through this procedure he allows the selection process to be clearly guided by God’s will, thus avoiding disputes between the tribes.
Eldad and Medad are “among the recorded,” originally designated to be included in the group of seventy-two elders assembled outside the Sanctuary. They refuse, however, to participate. The Talmud offers two antithetical explanations for their refusal: According to an anonymous opinion, Eldad and Medad do not attend the ceremony because they are fearful of not being selected. Rabbi Shimon, however, maintains that they demur because they do not feel worthy of selection.
In spite of their absence from the proceedings, however, God grants Eldad and Medad prophetic vision.
Rabbi Shimon, true to his position, maintains that God further rewards Eldad and Medad for their humility. While the prophetic ability bestowed upon those who attend the ceremony outside the Sanctuary is fleeting, Eldad and Medad are divinely granted permanent prophetic vision.
Most later scholars accept Rabbi Shimon’s position that Eldad and Medad fail to participate in the selection for the Sanhedrin because they do not feel worthy of rising to leadership. God grants them prophetic vision specifically as a reward for their unassuming nature. Eldad and Medad’s story thus emerges as a moral tale, underscoring the merits of humility.
There is, however, another clear moral lesson that emerges from this strange narrative. Eldad and Medad are slated for leadership, whether they wish to accept it or not. Their attempt to avoid their fate is miraculously forestalled, as God seeks them out against their will. In doing so, He conveys a message that, at once, ties into Moshe’s wrenching realizations at Kivrot Hata’ava (see previous study) and, at the same time, resounds across the ages: No matter what your motivation, you cannot avoid your God-mandated responsibilities.