Parshat Be’Ha’alotecha: Judaism’s Leadership without Authority
Parshat Be’Ha’alotecha establishes the cornerstone for Judaism’s unique approach to leadership, endorsing the notion that it can exist even in conditions of no formal authority. This approach has been and remains central to the survival, recurring prosperity and the permanent leadership of the Jewish People in humanity.
In a particularly dramatic section of this Parsha, Moses has a dual crisis. In the first, following the complaints of the People of Israel about the food and their desire to return to Egypt, he falls into despair, doubting his ability to serve the mission that God bestowed upon him to lead the People of Israel, to a point where he may have preferred death to his life (Bamidbar 11: 11-15). In response, God instructs Moses to establish a council of seventy elders, with whom he would share the burden of authority over and management of the people (Bamidbar 11: 16-17). These elders then convene in a tent, which becomes the center of authority and power for the People of Israel.
The second crisis emanated from the work of Eldad and Medad. The Torah reads (Bamidbar 11: 26-29): “Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp; The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”; Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said: “Moses, my master, imprison them!”; Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” Rabbi Lord Jonatan Sacks explains in Covenant and Conversation 5774 how this episode highlights the premium that Judaism places on ‘leadership as influence’ as opposed to ‘leadership as power.’
Another key point here is that Eldad and Medad were serving the people within the camp, and outside the place of authority, the tent, where Moses and the seventy elders were. Joshua, having a zero-sum outlook of power, views this situation as a threat to Moses and advises to sanction them. However, Moses ignores his advice and responds with tremendous magnanimity. Recognizing the societal merit of such work and the pure motives of Eldad and Medad, he endorses their right to prophesize, and thereby establishes a key pillar of the societal order of the Jewish People that has been essential throughout our history and will remain so in the future.
“Let them eat cake” is a statement famously associated with Queen Marie Antoinette of France, when she learnt that the peasants have no bread. Well, history is made up of stories about leaders who were confined to their palaces, surrounded by advisors, guards and secretaries, or were inspired by big ideas and sweeping ideologies, failing to see the pain of their peoples. In ancient societies these leaders were eventually displaced through revolutions, most often in bloodshed, and in modern societies they are voted out based on wide-spread popular resentment.
Hence the profound wisdom of allowing prophesy outside the tent of authority: being with the people and dwelling among them allows not only for understanding their concerns but also for exploring new ideas that may serve them well. In other words, Moses’ endorsement of Eldad and Medad points to the value of the societal knowledge that may emerge by leaders working across society and on its edges, and not just at its center. And this is why wise politicians insist on field visits and on spending time with their constituents, breaking through the circles that isolate them. This logic also underlies the crucial societal role which is played by journalists, who are going out to meet the people where they are. One of their maxims, taught to me by one of the leading journalists of our time, is: “If you don’t go, you don’t know.”
The history of the Jewish People has been driven by such leadership that had no formal authority and emanated from the people. In fact, the entire Oral Torah and Talmudic process is based upon the work of such leaders, our sages and rabbis, who have been extracting wisdom out of their communities. That pool of societal wisdom, created bottom-up by rabbis, has become the cornerstone of Judaism’s ability to always be in a leadership position in humanity. These societal workings in the Diaspora can be counted upon to continue to deliver resilience, recurring prosperity and leadership for the Jewish People.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that, unfortunately, Jews failed to excel in establishing an inspiring model of exercise of authority. During the First and Second Temple Eras, Jewish sovereignty eventually became corrupt and inefficient, and ultimately did not sustain itself. In later periods, the identity of the Exilarchs, who were the Heads of the Diaspora in Babylon with formal authority in the community, is barely known even to historians, while the teachings of luminaries such as the Amoraim or the Gaonim echo until today.
Hence, the real challenge of the Jewish People in terms of leadership and authority is probably in Israel. While Israel’s overall performance is astounding, the qualities of its politics are worrying and its political system fails to be inspiring. Meanwhile, Israel’s societal entrepreneurs, who are driving innovation to address acute social problems, are of the most remarkable in the world. Many would agree that the most inspiring stories emanating from Israel nowadays are about individuals who are ‘prophesizing in the camp,’ deeply connected to people’s challenges and highly innovative with solutions.
The question then becomes what should a Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish exercise of authority look like? That issue is increasingly acute in a world where the pace of change is accelerating, and where governments are structurally incapable of responding effectively to the rapidly changing needs of their peoples. Hence, while this Parsha gives us a clear general endorsement of a society where leadership emanates bottom up and a warning against concentrated authority, this lesson is probably even truer in this day and age.
But what do these lessons practically mean in a modern 21st century Israeli society? My answer is that Be’Haalotecha encourages us to envision Israel as a society where power, leadership, resources and decision-making is decentralized to regions, cities and communities, which are empowered to explore their own unique paths within the political framework called the State of Israel. I also believe that such a society can be a 21st century model society outstanding in its resilience and prosperity, because the societal challenges that this Parsha speaks to are eternal, as is the logic of the outlook it offers.
Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute, an Israel-based strategy and action group focused on effectuatingchange in areas critical to Israel’s future. He is the author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.