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PARASHAT BEHA'ALOTCHA 5758
THE MISSION OF ELDAD AND MEIDAD
Hashem said to Moshe: Gather 70 men from the elders of Israel... and take them to the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and have them stand there with you. I will come and speak to you there, and I will extend the spirit of prophecy that is upon you and place it upon them...Shortly after a tragic fire killed "those at the edge of the Jewish encampment" (Bamidbar 11:1), Moshe was asked to appoint 70 elders to become temporary prophets and permanent leaders of the nation. Rashi (11:16) explains that they were to replace the original 70-man Sanhedrin, or Jewish supreme court, who expired in the above-mentioned fire. ("The edge" of the encampment that was burned, was the cutting edge.)
In truth, Rashi adds, the original Sanhedrin ought to have been punished earlier. The sin for which they paid with their lives occurred immediately before the Giving of the Ten Commandments, at which time the Sanhedrin was invited to climb Mt. Sinai along with Moshe, Aharon and Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, to experience a heightened measure of revelation of the Divine Presence (Shemot 24:11). Instead of approaching with the appropriate awe, however, they lightheartedly came to the appointment after a full meal, "like a slave that serves the king while biting on a piece of bread" (Rashi, Bamidbar ibid.) In order not to diffuse the Jews' joy of receiving the Torah, Hashem did not punish the elders of the Sanhedrin until this week's Parasha, after they had left Mt. Sinai on their trek towards the land of Israel.
Evidence that this was indeed the role of the 70 elders chosen in this Parasha can be gleaned from the Torah's description of how authority was bestowed upon them: "I will extend (Hebrew root: Atzal) the spirit of prophecy that is upon you...." When the Sanhedrin climbed Mt. Sinai to experience the Divine Presence, they were called "Atzilei" -- that is, the spirit of prophecy that was on Moshe *extended* upon them as well. Now that spirit would be extended to be placed upon others.
Although this explanation makes it obvious why 70 elders, and no more, were chosen for this experience, one early commentator (Moshav Zekeinim) points out that there was another factor that limited the number of "prophets" that Moshe appointed.
Moshe could only "extend" his source of prophecy to encompass the other elders while they stood with him "surrounding the Mishkan" (11:24). The dimensions of the Mishkan were 30 x 10 cubits (Shemot 26:16-23), and a person is generally one cubit wide (Gemara Sukah 7b). If so, exactly thirty elders could line up on either side of the Mishkan and another ten could stand at its western flank, making a total of 70 elders surrounding the Mishkan! Moshe stood by himself at the open eastern end of the Mishkan, so that the Divine spirit that emanated from the Mishkan would envelop him and extend to the elders.
The Torah goes on to describe how two of the chosen elders, Eldad and Meidad, decided in their exceptional humility that they were not fit to be prophets or leaders. They remained behind when the others went to join Moshe at the Mishkan. As reward for their humility, not only did Hashem grant them prophecy, He granted them an even greater level of prophecy than was experienced by the elders who stood with Moshe at the Mishkan! The other elders only prophesied for a short period time, while Eldad and Meidad did not cease to experience prophesy. (Gemara Sanhedrin 17a, according to the opinion of Rebbi Shimon. See Rashi in Ein Yakov, ibid, who explains that there is another, dissenting opinion presented there as well.)
The Gemara's interpretation would seem hard to reconcile with the verses. The Torah tells us clearly that Hashem extended the spirit of prophecy that was upon Moshe and placed it upon "the *70* elders... who became *temporary* prophets." Since two of the elders, i.e. Eldad and Meidad, became permanent prophets, shouldn't the Torah have said that only *68* became temporary prophets?
Upon further analysis the answer to our question is obvious. Moshe was told to take 70 elders and place them around the Mishkan. When Eldad and Meidad did not come at the appointed time, Moshe took another two elders (from the 72 originals) instead of them. The spirit of prophecy rested on all 70 of those elders -- and also on Eldad and Meidad, who were back in the encampment, as well! All told, there were 72, and not 70, prophets besides Moshe on that day. (This appears to be the opinion of the Da'at Zekeinim 11:28,29 and Or ha'Chaim, 11:26, as well.)
If this interpretation is correct, it may be pointed out that it is appropriate indeed for Moshe to have appointed two "extra" prophets at this point -- two men who were even greater than the original 70. As we mentioned above, the 70 elders were meant to replace the members of the Sanhedrin who were killed for their sin at Mt. Sinai. Besides the 70 elders of the Sanhedrin, another two people climbed Mt. Sinai and sinned by eating and drinking too much, in a manner similar to the elders. Nadav and Avihu lost their lives, in part due to their sin at Mt. Sinai, when they attempted to bring an unsolicited offering to Hashem at the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan (Vayikra 10:1; Rashi Shemot 24:10). When replacements were chosen for the 70 Sanhedrin, Hashem also chose replacements for Nadav and Avihu, who overshadowed them (as in Rashi Shemot 19:24).
(1) The Gemara in Sanhedrin (17a) presents three opinions as to what was the subject of the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad. According to the first opinion, they proclaimed that "Moshe will die; it is Yehoshua who will bring us into the Promised Land."
The Gemara tells us (Sanhedrin 52a) that Nadav and Avihu sinned by saying (or by thinking), "When will these two elders (Moshe and Aharon) pass on, already, that the two of us may lead the generation [into the Land of Israel]." Eldad and Meidad disclaimed this attitude. "Yes, Moshe will die before entering the Land of Israel," they announced -- "but we will not be the new leaders. Yehoshua, Moshe's faithful student, will take the nation into the Promised Land.
(2) According to another opinion, Eldad and Meidad prophesied the arrival of the Slav (quail). The Jews had complained that they wanted meat to eat. They had enough of the Divine food that rained on them daily from heaven; instead of Manna, they wanted to eat meat. Well, meat they got, in the form of bountiful Slav. But no sooner had they begun to eat, than they felt the wrath of Hashem. Hashem took the lives of the gluttonous ones who decried His Divine Manna in the episode of the "Graves of those who Craved" (Bamidbar 11:33,34).
Why, indeed, did the Jews die for requesting meat? It may not be too far off the mark to suggest that they died for a reason very similar to what caused the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Throughout the time they spent in the desert, Hashem rested His Presence among the Jews. They lived in the presence of the Mishkan, ate the spiritual Manna for food, drank from the miraculous "rolling well" of Miriam (Rashi Bamidbar 20:2), walked upon and were shaded by the heavenly Clouds of Glory, and experienced numerous other miracles (Devarim 29:4). Under such circumstances, it was disrespectful for them to ask to fulfill their superfluous physical desires. It would be like "biting on their bread while serving the king!" This explanation can in fact be found clearly in the verse: "(the meat) will be like swords for you, since you have become disgusted with Hashem that is in your midst" (Bamidbar 11:20, according to Rashi). By eating the meat, they were showing a lack of respect for the Divine Presence which dwelled amongst them.
Eldad and Meidad ushered in the Slav that would teach the Jews this lesson, as a way of announcing that Nadav and Avihu were mistaken. Let everyone learn from the Slav to show the necessary respect, and to control their physical desires when standing in Hashem's presence!
The Targum Yonatan explains in more detail what this prophecy entailed. They described how Hashem will destroy Gog and his nation by "burning their souls with a fire that will emanate from under His Throne of Glory" while leaving their dead bodies intact. Afterwards, Hashem will bring all the righteous back to life and award them their eternal reward.
When Nadav and Avihu offered their unsolicited offering in the Mishkan, they were also killed by a fire that emanated from the Holy of Holies and burned their souls while leaving their bodies intact (Sanhedrin 52a). It would appear that the intention of this Gemara is that they died through exposure to a higher level of perception of the Creator that they were ready to experience. This was indeed the sin for which they, and the Sanhedrin, ought to have been killed on Mt. Sinai: "They 'peeked' and saw" what was beyond their true grasp (Rashi Shemot 24:10). The natural result of such an action is that the soul is taken from the body by the fire of Hashem -- "For Hashem is likened to a devouring fire" (Devarim 4:24).
At the end of time, Hashem will reveal himself to us. All the forces of evil that cannot withstand such a revelation will be destroyed. Such is the fate of Gog and his nation, "their soul will burn, but their bodies will remain intact."
Eldad and Meidad announced that Nadav and Avihu were indeed wrong. In the present world, it is not yet possible to perceive the Presence of Hashem as they had desired. The time when Hashem will reveal himself to us will only come with the final redemption, when Gog and his nation Magog are stifled and the righteous are brought back to life -- may that time come speedily in our days!