This week’s parasha contains the the story of the first “sanhedrin” of 70 elders:
I want to look at that word, אצלתי. It’s the verbification of אצל, ”next to“:
So it really means “set aside”.
But it has a deeper implication of “set aside for importance”. An אציל is a leader:
So Rashi translates ואצלתי here as “I will make them leaders”:
And this idea of אצלתי מן הרוח אשר עליך becomes in later Kabbalah the idea of the עולם האצילות. ה׳ manifests in the physical universe in three “lower”,more indirect ways (from ישעיהו מג:ז: כל הנקרא בשמי ולכבודי בראתיו; יצרתיו אף עשיתיו) in the עולמות of עשיה, יצירה and בראיה, but the most abstract is called עולם האצילות. That’s what these שבעים איש מזקני ישראל are going to get: a direct line to G-d, a little part of what Moshe has.
Why was this necessary? Let’s look at the back story. First, the people complained in תבערה and were punished:
And the קצה המחנה, the “extremes of the camp” were consumed. There are two understandings of this:
And immediately after, the people complain again, and now Moshe gives up:
So when ה׳ tells Moshe to gather 70 elders, we can understand that it is because the old leadership is gone:
And Moshe gathers the new leaders:
What does ויתנבאו ולא יספו mean? יסף is one of those words that is its own antonym: “they prophesied once but no more” or “they prophesied and did not stop”:
יסף meaning “add on” is familiar; ספה meaning “cut off” occurs a few times in תנ״ך:
And the ambiguity occurs multiple times:
I’m a big believer in the idea that literary ambiguity is intentional. I would translate ויתנבאו ולא יספו as “they fell into a prophetic trance just the once, but the effect of that lasted forever”.
Why does Moshe need them? How do they help with complaints about meat?
It’s important to realize that these elders weren’t judges; that role had already been filled:
The elders are leaders, executives. They act as representatives of Moshe as leader. Their role is to deal with the complainers and say “no”. The manna is there, they have plenty of cows and sheep, the rules for kosher food prep were already given. Moshe just needed someone else to tell the people to stop whining. The אצילות is what gives them authority in the eyes of the people. They have to see Moshe handing the authority to the elders, hence ויצא משה וידבר אל העם את דברי ה׳; ויאסף שבעים איש מזקני העם ויעמד אתם סביבת האהל.
That’s why Eldad and Meidad are so dangerous when they didn’t join Moshe (במדבר יא:כו) והמה בכתבים ולא יצאו האהלה; ויתנבאו במחנה. They appear to be taking the רוח ה׳ without the responsibility of leadership:
Moshe needs the elders to talk to the people because of the disconnect between Moshe and the people. Their complaint of זכרנו את הדגה אשר נאכל במצרים has no meaning to Moshe; he was never a slave and never suffered with them. Moshe could tell them to stop complaining and they would answer, “You just don’t understand!” And they would be right.
That’s a lovely thought. But there’s a dark consequence to this empathy:
That’s an astonishing Midrash: the שטרים who suffered for בני ישראל, who allowed themselves to be beaten to protect them and became the שבעים איש מזקני ישראל, they were דתן ואבירם!
And the people loved them:
Their concern for בני ישראל led to their leadership but also led to their failure when things started getting tough.
The שבעים איש who were supposed to help Moshe lead the people, are never heard from again (at least not as a help to Moshe!). Their job was to say no and they evidently could not do that.ה׳ has them appointed specifically to teach both Moshe and בני ישראל a lesson.
The tragedy of this parasha is that the journey from הר סיני to הר ציון should have been a journey taken by adultsץ It becomes the journey of whining brats: ויהי העם כמתאננים. And דתן ואבירם are exactly the leaders they deserve.