The Jewish people seemed poised for entry into the Promised Land when suddenly, “The nation became a group of kvetchers, complaining evilly in the ears of the Lord…. saying, ‘who will feed us meat? Remember the fish which we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the onions and the garlic’” (Num. 11:1,4, 5).
The degeneration continues: Moses cries out to G-d that he has no meat to give the nation and that he can no longer bear the burden of leading them. The Divine response is to tell Moses to gather 70 men from among the elders of Israel who will help bear the burden and upon whom the spirit of the Lord will rest (ibid., 11:16,17).
Why are the Jews so vexed and unsettled and how does God’s response alleviate their feelings? They want meat and God tells Moses to give them 70 rabbis! After all of the miracles of the Exodus, it is difficult to understand the disillusionment of the Israelites, and even more difficult to understand the solution offered by God.
I believe that the subtext of this trialogue between the Israelites, Moses and God is that Moses is now being confronted by a new generation, by the youth who left Egypt and are now maturing into adulthood. This new generation has different needs and expectations to their parents. Each generation requires its own teachers; each generation has its own dreams, needs and vision. The adults who left Egypt with Moses required a rav; their children who were now growing to maturity required a rebbe.
It has often been said that the difference between a rav and a rebbe is that when a rav chastises, everyone thinks he is speaking to their neighbor, whereas when a rebbe chastises everyone feels that he is speaking personally to them. I believe there is another difference which emanates from this one. A rav speaks with the voice of tradition and conveys the words of God to the entire nation, giving a message which expresses the vision of our eternal Torah for all generations. A rebbe speaks personally to every individual, taking the eternal message of God and making it relevant to their needs. The rav speaks to the generation; the rebbe speaks to the individual in each generation.
Moses was an exalted prophet who came to the Israelites from the faraway palace of Pharaoh. He continued to lead them from the Tent of the Divine Meeting three parasangs (about 10.5 miles) from the encampment of the Israelites. Moses did not speak to the Israelites with his own voice, since “he was heavy of speech and of uncircumcised tongue”.
He thundered with the voice of God presenting the divine message of freedom and responsibility. His power, which emanated from the Divine, enabled him to unite the nation and to imbue them with the confidence to follow him and God into the barren desert. Moses came from the distance and looked out into the distance. He was a ro’eh (with an aleph); a lofty and majestic seer.
Now that the Jews had collectively left the land of oppression, followed their seer into the desert and were about to begin a new life in the Promised Land, they had to put the general and elusive notion of national freedom into personal perspective. Each individual had to understand how to utilize the gift of freedom to find their individual purpose and their individual expression within the context of God’s land and God’s Torah. Each individual had to find their own instrument within the divine symphony orchestra.
For this, they required an individual shepherd (ro’eh with an ayin, not an aleph). They could not articulate this need because they didn’t quite understand it. They thought their discomfort stemmed from boredom with the uniform, daily manna.
That is why they were not even sure which food they wanted; meat, watermelon, leeks or garlic. What they really needed was individual nourishment for their souls. At first, Moses too did not understand what they needed and so, when he sent out the scouts to tour the land and inspire the people with its bounty, he told them “strengthen yourselves and take the fruit of the land” and bring back luscious grapes.
Ultimately, Moses understands this new generation requires a personalized rebbe rather than a God-imbued rav. This was a trait that even one as close to God as Moses did not have the wherewithal to develop. His closeness to God and eternity conflicted with their immediate individual needs.
Moses recognizes that this new generation requires a new leader: “Let the Lord God of the differing spirits of the various flesh and blood human beings appoint a leader over the congregation, one who will take them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord not be like sheep without a shepherd” (ibid., 27:16).
Joshua was a very different type of leader from Moses. In addition to being a great scholar and prophet, he was a man of the people. This made him the right person to bring this generation into the Promised Land. They had cried out for meat but what they really needed were leaders who could prophesy from within the encampment, rather than from the distant Tent of Meeting where God resided. They needed a rebbe.
WATCH Rabbi Riskin’s commentary to Parshat Beha’alot’cha: “A Change of Leadership: Bringing G-d’s Word into the Encampment”
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.