Parshat Behalotecha

June 14th, 2019

Towards the end of Parshat Behalotecha the people get restless and grumble to Moshe. He turns to Hashem and complains that it is a pretty tough task to manage Bnei Yisrael on his own. Hashem proposes and Moshe sets up a council of seventy elders to assist in the leadership. We are then told “Hashem took of the spirit of Moshe and gave it to the seventy elders and they prophesied, but it ceased.” Then there is an intriguing follow up, two men Eldad and Medad, who are nor part of the seventy, start prophesying in the camp and Joshua runs to Moshe to tell him to lock them away. Moshe responds, “don’t fret on my behalf. I would be happy if all Hashem’s people were prophets.”

These few sentences create an interesting Talmudic discussion appropriately in the tractate Sanhedrin as to what was happened with these two fellows, also partly quoted by Rashi. When Moshe takes on the task of gathering seventy elders the maths do not quite work and in trying to be fair he takes six from each tribe and ends up with seventy two candidates. One of two ways out seems to have been found. Either lots were drawn and Eldad and Medad came up with blanks or of their own accord they dropped out, feeling they were not worthy of this privilege, and remained in the camp.

So, then the question is what did they prophesy that got Joshua so upset? Well the Talmudic Rabbis suggest three different theories. One that now quails will now fly in and provide the meat they so miss. Another that Moshe will die and Joshua will take Israel to the Promised Land. Thirdly relating to the wars of Gog and Magog at the end of the days, based on some verses in Ezekiel. Interestingly, short term, medium term, and long term prophesies of the future.

We can understand why Joshua would get upset and embarrassed at to the prophesy of his role in the future but I think we need to a more considered perspective of the role of prophesy. Clearly Eldad and Medad were provided with some divine inspiration if, as the Talmud says, these were their prophesies However, I suspect that the Hebrew word “Navi” used here for both the divine spirit rested on the seventy elders and that on these two characters, could be more suitably translated as divine inspiration rather than prophesy. We are told at the close of the Torah that there was never a prophet (Navi) like Moshe, but we do not really view Moshe as a person telling us what will happen in the future, but much more as having passed onto us what he received in divine inspiration at Sinai and throughout the forty years in the wilderness.

R B H Epstein notes the difference between the seventy elders and Eldad and Medad. The verse actually says that the seventy were given prophesy but it ceased! Epstein suggests that they also knew of the fact that Joshua would take over, but kept quiet about it. To back this up he quotes an interesting saying from Talmud Eruvin “Rav Hiya says – he who holds his wine has of the knowledge of the seventy elders,” suggesting that he who knows to hold or limit his wine knows when to keep quiet. By the way R Hiya continues that intaking wine brings out the secret, noting that the word “yayin” has the gamatria of seventy but so does the word “sod” for secret. So wine as we is very special, an essential part of our religion, but don’t overdo it.

Possibly one of the interesting things about Eldad and Medad is that there were the two of them. Despite being mention by name, we do not know any more about them. Who they actual were is unclear as unusually, their lineage is not mentioned, but the Midrashim place them as relations of Moshe. I cannot think of many examples of a double act in our history, but without any comparisons, in more recent times it has been a popular mode of presentation. Acts like Laurel and Hardy, Morecombe and Wise, sports commentators, radio presenters and more. I can remember several years ago presenting a seminar in South Africa with my French Colleague, Jacques Ben Simon, It really worked well with the changes of style and me making jokes abut the French and he about the English. I wonder how it worked with Eldad and Medad.