As the Jewish people leave Mount Sinai, after camping at the mountain for just short of a year, the trouble begins.

They have everything they need, they are protected from the elements by the clouds of glory, they drink water from the miraculous well, and they eat the mysterious “food from the heavens,” the manna.

And yet, they begin to complain. As the Torah relates:

But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.”1

Moses, the most patient and devoted leader, who stood by the people through thick and thin, who did not abandon them even when they committed the cardinal sin of serving the golden calf, throws his hands up in frustration:

Moses said to the L‑rd, “Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ Alone I cannot carry this entire people, for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me, if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.”2

And G‑d listens.

When Moses initially resisted assuming the leadership of the Jewish people, G‑d spent seven days cajoling him to accept. And here, without the slightest word of protest, G‑d accepts Moses’ claim that he is incapable of leading the nation all alone:

Then the L‑rd said to Moses, “Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people’s elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone.”3

Granted, asking for meat is not the most spiritual exercise, but what is it about the request that so offends Moses? And if Moses, the model leader, can no longer lead such a difficult people, then what secret do the seventy elders possess that will allow them to succeed where Moses apparently failed?

The people are not asking for meat. They have plenty of cattle. The meat is an excuse to complain. They resent the moral and religious restrictions the Torah places on their personal life. They long for Egypt where, though slaves to Pharaoh, they could go home and be free from moral restrictions. As Rashi explains:

“Which we ate in Egypt free of charge”: If you say that the Egyptians gave them fish free of charge, does it not already say, “Straw shall not be given to you”?4 Now if straw was not given free of charge, was fish given to them free of charge? So what does “free of charge” mean? Free from [the burden of the] divine commandments.5

Moses, who has spent every moment of the past year studying and teaching Torah to the Jews, sees this complaint for what it is: a rejection of everything he stands for. Moses is trying to elevate his beloved people to a higher plane. To refine their character. To place them on a spiritual path. Yet all they see are restrictions. Moses is dejected. He feels that there is an unbridgeable gap between himself and the people.

He turns to G‑d and cries: “Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them?” What he is saying is that, despite everything he has done, the people don’t view him as a loving parent who has their best interests in mind. They see him as an old man trying to impose his way of life. They see him as standing in the way of the lifestyle they want to live.

G‑d understands.

G‑d understands that the people failed. They failed to appreciate the greatness of Moses. They failed to acknowledge his great love and sacrifice for them. There is, however, no point in pushing Moses to lead alone, as he cannot be effective unless the people see him for who he is: someone who cares for them like a mother cares for the child she conceived and gave birth to. At this point, G‑d tells Moses to find seventy leaders, but not just any seventy. This is not about appointing people to help Moses; this is about selecting leaders whom the people trust. Leaders whom the people know would sacrifice anything for their wellbeing, as a mother would for her children.

These elders have a track record. These are seventy people who suffered terribly to protect the Jews back in Egypt. As Rashi explains:

“Whom you know to be . . .”: Those whom you know that they were appointed as officers over them in Egypt [to oversee] the rigorous labor, and they had mercy on them and were beaten on their account, as it says, “The officers of the children of Israel were beaten.”6 Now they shall be chosen in their greatness, just as they had suffered in their [Israel’s] distress.7

The seventy elders have no power that Moses does not posses. In fact, their leadership comes from “the spirit that is upon you [Moses].”8 Moses is the source of the inspiration, but if the people don’t see him as a mother, then they need the elders, whom they trust, to lead them toward the teachings of Moses.

The Torah is giving us a message: if you want to have any chance at influencing people, make sure that they have no doubt that you care deeply for them. As the saying goes: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Source: Based on Mishpetei Torah, by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Shpitz, on Parshat Behaalotecha.