Let them be yours alone

In this Parsha, we read of the fascinating incident of Eldad and Medad. G‑d commands Moses to appoint seventy men who will share the burden of the people with him. Everything proceeds according to plan, until Eldad and Medad begin to prophesy in the camp. The seventy prophets all received a kind of “hechsher” from Moses, certifying the legitimacy of their prophecy. By contrast, Eldad and Medad were prophets without a license.

When Joshua sees them prophesying, he says that a prophet without a hechsher should be imprisoned. At this point, Moses gives a memorable response: “Are you jealous for my sake?”1 It is unclear if this is a rhetorical question.

Moses then makes a trenchant comment: “Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets, that G‑d would put His spirit upon them.” This is a point that can be applied to Torah study, to general piety, and to many other matters. Is it necessary, or even possible, to confine these matters to a limited number of people who are most qualified for them? Should one restrict the matter or spread it around? When one possesses Torah, piety, wisdom, or knowledge – should one disseminate it? Is it better to keep it within oneself – “Let them be yours alone” – or should “others share with you?”2

This is actually a general question about the nature of the ­Jewish people. Should only the worthy enter the inner sanctum, while the unworthy remain outside, or may anyone who desires presume to enter?

I posit that this was the argument between Moses and Joshua, an argument that continued over the course of the generations. In a certain sense, this was also the dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai3 whether to teach Torah only to the wealthy or to the poor as well. Before Hillel’s time the custom was that one could not enter the beit midrash without paying an entrance fee. Admission was not open to all comers; one had to demonstrate one’s seriousness by being willing to pay. Beit Hillel’s position was to open the beit midrash so that whoever wanted to study could come and study.

In describing Yehoshua B. Gamla, the Talmud says, “That man shall be remembered for good, for were it not for him, Israel would have forgotten the Torah.”4 Yehoshua B. Gamla founded a chain of popular schools that allowed all Jewish children to learn Torah, an innovation at the time. It is not that this innovation never occurred to anyone before. Rather, beforehand people took a different approach, saying that if someone is not completely cut out for such study, he should not study at all. If someone truly wanted to study, they claimed, he will ultimately find his way on his own.

The last time this dispute broke out between the two approaches was in Yavne. A large part of the dispute with Rabban Gamliel in Yavne and his dismissal had to do with this argument. As long as Rabban Gamliel was president, there was a doorkeeper at the entrance to the beit midrash. This doorkeeper enforced Rabban Gamliel’s proclamation that anyone “whose inside is not the same as his outside” may not enter the beit midrash. The Talmud relates that after the doorkeeper was removed, four hundred benches were added to the beit midrash, implying a vast increase in the number of students learning there. ­Rabban Gamliel was then greatly disheartened, saying, “Perhaps I withheld Torah from Israel!” He was then shown in a dream four hundred casks full of ashes, as though to tell him not to be overly upset, as these new students were not worth very much. The Talmud concludes: “This, however, really meant nothing; he was only shown this to appease him” – in truth, ­Rabban Gamliel had made the wrong decision.5

But who was this doorkeeper? Who could possibly recognize whether a person’s inside is the same as his outside? The answer is that the doorkeeper just stood there and announced, “If anyone’s inside is not the same as his outside, he should not enter the beit midrash.” That was all that was necessary to deter most people from entering. But what Rabban Gamliel did not know was that there were people whose hearts were broken inside them, people who were thirsty for Torah, people whose insides were indeed the same as their outsides – and yet when such a person would heard the announcement that whoever’s inside is not the same as his outside should not enter, he would begin to doubt his own integrity nonetheless. He would remember the dubious things he did in the past, and question if perhaps he was not worthy of entering the beit midrash and studying. So he would not enter. The only people who would enter without any hesitation were those to whom it was obvious that their insides were the same as their outsides. According to this explanation, the casks full of ashes symbolize the students who entered before the doorkeeper was removed, and not the new students.

The whole Jewish people

This dispute, and Moses’ question to Joshua, is a real problem. It cannot be said that Joshua was a petty person, envious and narrow minded, and he therefore understood nothing. Joshua was a supremely exalted individual; he just had a different perspective and a different approach.

This same issue appears in several places in the Torah. For example, after the sin of the Golden Calf, G‑d says to Moses, “Leave Me alone, and I will destroy them…and I will make you a nation greater and more numerous than they are,”6 and yet Moses resists: “Blot me out from the book You have written”7 under no circumstances! Why does he resist? If G‑d had said to Moses, “I shall abandon the People of Israel and place My spirit on Yitro’s people,” Moses’ outcry would have been understandable. Why are Yitro’s people considered ­better than my people? But Moses’ essential complaint relates to the question of ownership of the Torah. Who are the elect? Is the Torah only for special individuals, or is it a Torah for everyone, even for ordinary people, even for people who sinned because of ignorance or obtuseness? Who are the chosen? Only unique individuals, the elite, those who exemplify the legacy of Moses? Or do the chosen include others as well, like Korach and other rebellious, transgressive individuals among us?

Moses fights precisely over this point. He fights for the Jewish people as a national community. Does the Jewish people have to be composed entirely of select individuals, where one by one everyone has been checked, or does the people include all types? Moses is neither overly forbearing nor overly forgiving, but on this principle he refuses to compromise. He does not condone the actions of sinners, but he is adamant that they are included in the Jewish people. Moses struggles, as it were, with G‑d over this point, and avers to G‑d that if He wants to build a nation out of exceptional people only, “blot me out from the book You have written.”

“Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets”

The resolution of this question is not simple and unequivocal, since there are different aspects to it, but ultimately we are all disciples of Moses, and the answer that he gives to this question is unequivocal: “Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets, that G‑d would put His spirit upon them.”8 If it were up to Moses, he would want not seventy prophets but 600,000 prophets – as many prophets as possible. According to this principle, all G‑d wants is that whoever is capable of receiving should receive, whoever is capable of absorbing should absorb, and whoever is capable of doing should do.

For Moses, this is not a minor detail but a major principle. He says that he is sorry that not all the people are prophets. They all should have become prophets, and if only they all would have wanted to be prophets. All his life, Moses regrets this, and in the description of the giving of the Torah in Deuteronomy, he complains that the people sent him to speak with G‑d and did not want to hear Him themselves. Essentially, he accuses them, telling them that they had an opportunity to be prophets – notwithstanding the pain that experiencing one’s soul taking flight entails – and yet they renounced the opportunity and decided to be commoners.

To be sure, it is difficult to be a prophet, and most of the prophets in Tanach did not enjoy being prophets. Being a prophet means paying an extraordinary personal price, and it appears that none of the ­prophets ended up being happy with the job. Only one prophet seemed to have wanted to be a prophet: Isaiah, who embraced the role. Isaiah proclaimed, “Here I am; send me”9 – and even of him we read that “My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot”10 and “I did not hide my face from insults and spitting.”11 Prophecy is not a simple matter, neither in this world nor in the inner world of the prophet. This is the lot of Isaiah, and this is the lot of every prophet.

Yet Moses nevertheless says, “I would like you to be prophets; I would like you to want to be prophets.” From Moses’ standpoint, ideally the process of creating a prophet would be simple. One would find a person in the street, grab him by the collar and say to him, “G‑d wants you to be a prophet!” Instead, what actually happens is that we tell the person that as long as he has a kippa on his head and attends synagogue, we are satisfied with his spiritual standing and we will leave him alone.

The question that Moses raises here is this: What does G‑d want from each and every member of the Jewish people? What does He require of him? What are His expectations for such a person?

We find a similar approach in Jeremiah: “No longer will they need to teach one another, saying: ‘Know G‑d’; for all of them – from the least of them to the greatest – will know Me.”12 Likewise, we see this perspective in the ideal portrayal of the end of days: “For the land will be filled with knowledge of G‑d as water covers the sea.”13

Moses the man

According to our mystical literature, one of the reasons that Moses needs the seventy prophets is that he is such a great man that he simply does not understand what people want. It is not that he is not wise enough. Rather, it is like sitting next to two small children who are quarreling over a candy wrapper. Would an adult intervene in such an inane dispute?

When Moses says despairingly, “I am not able to bear this entire people myself alone, for it is too much for me,”14 it is because he looks upon the people who say “give us meat” in this same way. He cannot understand how people can cry over onions and garlic; it seems impossible to him. So he says, “I cannot deal with them.” When he meets with all the leaders of thousands and leaders of hundreds, and they are all crying over the onions and garlic, he feels exactly like a beleaguered adult among bickering children; he does not understand them.

Moses, the man who speaks with G‑d face to face, the man who towers over all the people, has trouble dealing with the people in daily life. In spite of this, he refuses to compromise on the principle that everyone should have access to the Torah. Although he cannot deal with them, he does not want to give up on them either. He does not simply abandon the people or send them back to Egypt, as they implied they would prefer, keeping only the sensible, intelligent ones in his company. Nor does he refuse to interact with the general populace, insisting on communicating only with those to whom he can better relate. Instead, he puts himself on the line for each and every one of them, because the two issues are unconnected. Although they are foolish and he cannot relate to them, they deserve the Torah just as the wise do.

This great nation

The Torah makes two seemingly contradictory statements. On the one hand, it says, “Not because you are more numerous than all the other nations did G‑d embrace you and choose you; for you are the smallest of all the nations.”15 On the other hand, it says, “This great (hagadol) nation is certainly a wise and understanding people.”16 Is this nation a large nation or a small one?

In truth, however, hagadol does not refer to the nation’s size – we are a rather small nation – but to Israel’s chosenness. We are great in that we are a wise and understanding people.

In certain generations the people are more wise and understanding, and in other generations they are not, but the dispute between Moses and Joshua does not concern the reality but the ideal. Should one accept the status quo that there is a certain percentage of people who are ignorant, or should I combat this phenomenon? Moses says that he is absolutely unwilling to accept the given situation. He wants at least 600,000 prophets; for Moses, less than that is insufficient.

Since we all are Moses’ disciples – we therefore call him “our master” – it is our responsibility to recognize that Moses’ words and actions here convey a profound teaching. In this Parsha, the teaching goes beyond the details of practical halacha – how to make a tallit katan and a tallit gadol and when to bow during Aleinu. It has real ramifications for the question of how to view the Jewish people.

Moses issues a declaration: He says that he does not want to abandon the small people, leaving them small forever. Moses knows that such people exist; he himself suffers from their smallness, lowness, and inferiority – but that is a separate matter. Despite the suffering, he wants all of them to receive the Torah from the Almighty: “Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets, that G‑d would put His spirit upon them.”