The constant quarrels and complaints of the children of Israel, at times, proved exasperating for Moshe. His ultimate despair led him to plead with God to relieve him of the seemingly impossible responsibility of being their leader. God, however, was not about to discharge Moshe from his commission. Instead, God’s tasked him with appointing a council of seventy worthy leaders to share the burden of leadership with him:
And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Gather for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel of whom you know that they are the elders of the people (ziknei ha’am) and its overseers (v’shotrav), and you shall take them to the Tent of Assembly, and they shall station themselves there with you. (Numbers 11:16)
This charge posed an interesting exegetical problem for the sages. Moshe had already gathered a council of seventy elders on a number of occasions, before and during the desert trek. Why was there a need to appoint a new council of elders if one already existed? While this question may seem artificial, the sages used it as an exegetical opportunity.
This question is taken up in the midrashic work known as the Tanhuma (circa 7th century, Eretz Yisrael) which offers a variety of different answers (one after the other) to this question in an attempt to harmonize this story with those which precede it. Before we examine a couple of these midrashim, it is worth noting that the sages are unconcerned with offering often contradictory stories and explanations. For the author of this collection, each was a worthy attempt to answer the exegetical problem and to offer didactic lessons. There seems to have been little concern for composing the “history” of the events.
Here we present Rashi’s excellent summary of one of the midrashim found in the Tanhuma along with another found in the Tanhuma which presents a contrasting account:
But where were the first elders, that God commanded him to gather elders anew? Had they not sat [in judgment] with them (with Moses and Aaron) in Egypt, as it is stated: “Go and gather the elders of Israel together” (Exodus 3:16)? But these had died by the consuming fire of Taverah (Numbers 11:3). They really had deserved this [fate] for their behavior at Sinai, as it is said: “And they saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:10) where they behaved inappropriately, like a person who eats his bread while addressing the king – for this is the meaning of the words, “[And they saw God] and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11). The Holy One, blessed be He, however, did not wish to give any cause for mourning at the joyous event of the giving if the Torah, and therefore punished them here (at Taverah), (See Tanhuma Behaalotkha 17)
Contrast the above account which Rashi included in his commentary with the following which he didn’t:
Did they not have elders in the past? Was it not already stated in Egypt): “Go and gather the elders of Israel?” (Exodus 3:16) So for what reason had the Holy One, blessed be He, said: “Gather Me seventy men?” (Numbers 11:16) … When Pharaoh posted taskmasters over the children of Israel, he said to them, “Reckon the [number of] bricks.” They immediately arose and counted them. He said to them, “This many you shall produce for me each and every day.” He assigned Egyptian taskmasters over the officers of Israel, and the officers were assigned over the rest of the people. Moreover, when he said to them: “You shall no longer give the people straw” (in Exod. 5:7), the taskmasters came and counted the bricks. [If the bricks] were found deficient, the taskmasters beat the officers, as stated: “And the officers of the Children of Israel, whom [the taskmasters of Pharaoh] had set over them, were beaten….” (Exodus 5:14). When the officers were beaten for the rest of the people, they did not hand them over into the hands of the taskmasters, for they said: “It is better for us to be beaten than that the rest of the people falter.” Therefore, when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: “Gather Me seventy men” (Numbers 11:16), Moshe said: “My Master, I do not know who is worthy and who is not worthy.” He said to him: “Whom you know to be elders and officers of the people” (Numbers 11:16) – These are the officers who had handed themselves over to be beaten on their behalf in Egypt because of the required number of bricks. Let them come and receive this dignity. It therefore says: “whom you know to be elders and officers of the people” (ibid.) – Because they handed themselves over to be beaten for the community, therefore: “they shall lead with you in leading the people” (ibid.). [From here] you learn that whoever hands himself over for the sake of Israel merits dignity and the holy spirit. (Adapted from Tanhuma Behaalotkha 13)
These two midrashim serve not only as vehicles to provide continuity in the Torah’s storyline, but also as a means to teach an important lesson. Their common theme is the attempt to define the qualifications for proper leadership. In the first story, Moshe was asked by God to replace the old leadership because its piety was insufficient to serve as the people’s leaders. In contrast, the second midrash, inspired by the use of the word “shoteir – officer” in both stories, rewrites the Egyptian slave experience, turning the officers into heroic figures worthy of being leaders of the people on account of their roles as the people’s protectors.
What we can glean from these two contrasting accounts of the “retelling” of the story of Moshe’s crisis of leadership and its resolution is that the sages saw themselves as active participants in shaping both the storyline and the meaning of the Torah’s stories, seeing in the recounting of the stories a means for shaping God’s ideal community.