Torah Portion of the Week: Sharing the Spirit

Parashat Beha’alotcha.

'Moses elects the Council of Seventy Elders' by Jacob de Wit, 1737.
Royal Palace of Amsterdam / Wikimedia Commons

In one of her poems, Lea Goldberg asks, “How can a single bird bear the entire sky?” Moses asks God a similar question: “Wherefore hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that thou shouldest say unto me: Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which thou didst swear unto their fathers?” (Numbers 11:11-12).

Moses considers his role a punishment, not an achievement. He finds the burden of parenthood too heavy: He did not give birth to the nation and should not be responsible for its care. His strong hint to God: “You created this nation, not I. Take it from me.”

Numbers 11 is the work of an editor who weaves two separate stories into a single narrative. Thus, it is hard to follow the plot and its inner logic when reading Parashat Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) straight through. The unraveling of the intertwined threads and the isolation of each story can enable us to read them in their complete, coherent form and to see how each describes the complex relationship between God, Moses and Israel.

One story deals with Israel’s complaint – another in an endless chain – about the shortage of food in the desert, in contrast with what they purportedly had in Egypt. The story then relates how God supplies the nation with plentiful meat, before suddenly striking the people with a harsh, lethal blow that is the source of the name of the place in which this occurs: Kivrot-Hata’ava (graves of lust). Between the lines there is another story – concerned with spirit, not matter – that opens with Moses’ complaint, not Israel’s. It’s that story I want to focus on.

Moses’ problem is ostensibly political. He finds it difficult to deal single-handedly with Israel, which is no longer a family, but is, rather, a large, powerful nation. This is not the only story in the Torah that relates to this problem; it also arises in Parashot Yitro (Exodus 18) and Devarim (Deuteronomy 1). In both of those cases, a satisfactory solution is found: namely, extension of the governing mechanism from one individual to a wide stratum of rulers and judges who will help Moses lead Israel.

In Parashat Beha’alotcha, on the other hand, God proposes a different solution, instructing Moses to gather 70 elders and lead them to the Tent of Meeting. This is a place where mortals encounter God, but its nature and location vary from one section of the Torah to the next. Most references to it belong to the priestly tradition, which identifies it with the Tabernacle – the mobile sanctuary in the heart of the camp, where God dwells and Israel presents sacrificial offerings. However, according to the prophetic code, reflected in this story and elsewhere, the tent is not a temple but a place for unfettered prophecy that is situated “without the camp, afar off from the camp. And it came to pass, that every one that sought the Lord went out unto the Tent of Meeting, which was without the camp” (Exodus 33:7).

Thus, our story assumes the Tent of Meeting is neither a place for sacrifices nor a site in the heart of the Israelite camp, but rather a place for prophecy that is distant from the camp. The 70 elders leave the camp and are led by Moses to the tent’s compound, where they have a unique prophetic experience. God distributes among the elders the unique spirit that has until now been experienced only by Moses: “And the Lord came down in the cloud, and spoke unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders; and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more” (Num. 11:25).

Surprisingly, God does not explain to Moses how the 70 elders will help him lead Israel or how the sharing of the spirit among dozens of additional individuals will ease Moses’ leadership burden. Why does God proclaim the spirit’s distribution rather than the delegation of political power?

Perhaps God understands what Moses cannot express explicitly and cannot even admit to himself: Moses’ loneliness makes it hard for him to deal not only with Israel but also with God. As exclusive mediator between heaven and earth, Moses must, on the one hand, present the Almighty’s words to a stubborn, ungrateful nation, and on the other, must also defend these poor slaves, representing them before a jealous, demanding God. Unlike political power, but like knowledge and love, spirit is not diminished when shared with others. Nonetheless, the idea of the spirit’s dissemination among the elders lightens Moses’ burden.

Joshua, Moses’ loyal servant, opposes this move, fearing it challenges Moses’ authority. Two rogue prophets, Eldad and Medad, do not participate in the spirit’s orderly distribution and prophesy freely and independently: “and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were recorded, but had not gone out unto the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp” (Num. 11:26). Believing this spiritual subversiveness is also political, Joshua demands that Moses stop them.

Moses is magnanimous toward the two. Early in our story, he wanted to die; now he suddenly softens. “Art thou jealous for my sake?” he answers Joshua, expressing astonishment. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). This is prophecy’s anarchistic vision, in contrast with the priesthood’s hierarchical view: Spiritual elevation is not limited to selected individuals and does not require institutional mediation.

Initially, the sharing of the spirit appeared to be an irrelevant solution. Now it is clear that it ends Moses’ isolation. Now that he has partners in the prophetic experience, he no longer considers Israel a burden, and Israel becomes a community of potential partners for containing God’s spirit. Even God's spirit is no longer too heavy for him; he sees it now not as a burden, but as an unlimited gift that he wants to disseminate and grant to everyone.