Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 29 May 2021 / 18 Sivan 5781

A Prophecy of Democracy

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Become a Supporter Library Library

When Moshe expressed his exasperation with the people’s request for meat and his inability to lead the people without assistance, G-d told him to assemble seventy elders. He gathered the seventy around the Tent, and the Divine Spirit descended in a cloud. G-d spoke to Moshe, extending some of the spirit that rested on Moshe to the elders, who then prophesied.

There were two men — Eldad and Meidad — who were summoned by Moshe to be among the elders. Moshe must have called seventy-two men — six from each tribe — so that there would not be envy among the tribes. While Moshe knew that only seventy would be chosen, he decided to leave it up to G-d to determine which two would not be elected. However, when Eldad and Meidad realized that two would not be chosen, they decided on their own to remain behind in the camp. Out of modesty, they thought that they were least worthy of the group. Precisely because of this modesty, the prophetic spirit rested on them, even though they remained in the camp among the people, and never approached the Tent.

When Yehoshua saw this, he ran to report the incident to Moshe, saying, “Eldad and Meidad are prophesying in the camp!” Yehoshua thought that they were undermining Moshe’s authority and infringing upon his authority, because the other seventy elders received their share of prophecy only as participants with Moshe, but Eldad and Meidad appeared as independent prophets. Yehoshua told Moshe to restrain them.

Moshe’s response was nothing of the sort. Instead, he questioned Yehoshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all of G-d’s people were prophets, so that G-d would place His spirit upon them!”

These incidents — both the appearance of Eldad and Meidad as prophets, and Moshe’s response — are highly significant and instructive for all successive generations. As the first leadership committee was being established, we are taught that supreme spiritual authority is not intended to establish a spiritual monopoly. Spiritual aptitude granted by G-d is not dependent on any special office — the humblest of the nation may be endowed with a portion of G-d’s spirit too.

While Yehoshua was jealous for Moshe’s honor and position, Moshe’s reply models the ideals of a true teacher and leader in Israel — whose supreme ideal is to raise the people so that they all attain a spiritual level that renders the leader’s own services superfluous. “Are you jealous for me?!” asks Moshe. There is no sacred clergy who must keep their grip over the laity — Would that all of G-d’s people would be prophets!

While the text does not reveal the content of Eldad and Meidad’s prophecy, one opinion is that they spoke of the future war between Gog and Magog at the end of days.

Gog and Magog represent the “roof principle” (gog, related to gahg, roof) — the concentration of all leadership at the summit of the nation. This principle will be defeated in the end of days, and the city of the opposing principle of democracy will be called Hamonah, meaning “City of the Masses.”

Eldad and Meidad heralded the ultimate victory of the principle of democracy over that of Gog and Magog. This prophecy was pronounced by the most modest of men, who were found worthy of leading the people. Out of their great modesty, they declined influential posts and preferred to remain in the midst of the people. For this reason they merited to bear the message of an ideal democratic future, in which the focal point of world social salvation would not be in the “Tent,” but in the “camp.”

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 11:26-30

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