The events described at the end our parshah occurred before the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the Torah is going back and revealing to us all that occurred during Matan Torah. The Torah states the following: “Moshe Aharon Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended. And they saw the God of Israel and under His feet was that which had the form of a sapphire brick, and was like the appearance of the heavens in purity. And to the nobles of Israel He did not send forth His hand- they viewed God, and they ate and drank.”(Shemot 24;9-11).
These verses are extremely difficult to understand, Rashi attempts to clarify them by saying that “They saw the God of Israel”(verse 10) means that; “They looked and glanced and they deserved death, but the Holy One Blessed Be He did not want to mix with the rejoicing of Matan Torah their deaths, so He waited and carried out the death penalty for Nadav and Avihu at the day on the inauguration of the Mishkan.”
Even Rashi’s explanation is unclear; is it possible to see the image of God when He is not physical?! Moreover, Rashi states that the elders deserved death, and that God delayed their punishment, but what exactly did they do wrong?
In order to understand this better we should look in Parshat Be’halotcha, there the Torah speaks of an episode where the Jewish People complained against God and were punished. “And the Nation was like those who seek pretexts of evil in the ears of God, and God heard and His wrath flared and a fire of God burned against them and it consumed in the edge of the camp” (Bamidbar 11;1) Rashi explains from Cahzal that that the fire didn’t consume the edge of camp, but rather the leaders of the camp. (אל תיקרי קציני המחנה אלא קציניהם)
When the Torah discusses the nation was complaining, Rashi states that the nation complained that their journey was too difficult as they had been walking for three days straight. Furthermore, later on in Parshat Behalotcha, the Torah tells us that Moshe also complained before God saying: “And Moshe said to God, Why have You done evil to Your servant; why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You place the burden of this entire people on me?…And if this is how You deal with me, then kill me now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and let me not see my evil.” (Bamidbar 11; 11-15) However, Rash explains that the last part of verse 15 isn’t “my evil”, but rather “their, ie the nation’s suffering”.(אל תקרי ברעתי אלא ברעתם)
Afterwards, God commands Moshe to take 70 men from the elders of Israel to help share the burden of leadership. “And Hashem said to Moshe, Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel whom you know to be the elders of the people and its officers; take them to the Tent of Meeting and have them stand there. And I Will descend and I will speak to you there, and I will increase some of the spirit that is upon you and I will place it upon them ect. (Bamidbar 11;17)
Rashi asks an important question, why does Moshe have to choose new elders, weren’t there already seventy elders of Israel? Rashi answers that the original elders had just died by the fire that consumed the camp, but they had already
deserved death since Matan Torah where it was stated that they saw God and ate and drank.
Let us now reevaluate the verses. Moshe complains to God that he can’t bear to see the suffering of the nation, and that he would rather die than continue to see Israel suffer. This, despite the fact that Moshe understood that the suffering of the nation and the difficulty for their journeying in the desert was for the greater purpose of bringing them to Eretz Yisrael. Nevertheless, Moshe’s character is so, that even for a good purpose, he still can’t bear to see the suffering of Israel. Thus, God tells Moshe that new elders need to have this quality in them as well. As Rashi states on the verse, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel whom you know to be the elders of the people and its officers.” According to Rashi these were the officers who were appointed by the Egyptians as guards over the Children of Israel in Egypt, and refused to hit fellow Jews during their slavery in Egypt. Due to their refusal to hit the Children of Israel the Egyptians beat the Jewish guards, as it states “The guards of the Children of Israel were beaten” (Shemot 5;14). Thus, God tells Moshe to gather the new elders so that, “I will increase some of the spirit that is upon you and I will place it upon them.” In other words, I will increase in them your spirit to care for Israel during their time of distress.
The first elders, however, did not have this quality. When they saw God at Mt. Sinian the Torah tells us they saw “Elokim”, which Chazal interpret as the attribute of justice, Middat HaDin. The original elders saw what the nation did not see; that every suffering they were enduring had a purpose and was part of a larger plan. This is why they were not concerned over the suffering they endured while the nation was, because they understood it was part of a larger plan. Yet, God punished them for their lack of connection and understanding with the rest of the nation, because it was improper leadership. Leadership requires understanding and caring about your nation in times of distress, even if their distress is for a good purpose. We see that the original elders did not have this quality, and were therefore punished by God.
In the late 19th century, during the waves of immigration from Eastern Europe many wives were left agunot by their husbands. During this difficult time period, many went to Rabbi Yitzcahk Elchanan Spector who was the Rav of Kovno (modern day Kaunas, Lithuania). Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector was a brilliant Torah scholar who specialized in agunot, and he worked tirelessly to help as many women as he could. The story goes is that one day a fellow rabbi visited Rabbi Spector, and asked him how he is able to come up with so many chiddushim in order to matir agunot. Rabbi Spector told him to walk with him to the shull of Kovno, and as they reached the shull there was a woman standing there who was crying. Rabbi Spector turned towards his visitor and told him, “You may even be smarter than me in Torah, but every single time I pass go to pray I see women crying begging me for help. This is how I able to find chiddushim to help.”
Our Sages teach us that every Jew has a spark of Moshe’s soul within him, and we find that the quality that encompasses Moshe the most is his ability to feel in distress when other Jews are suffering. This quality is true for any type of leadership, as it is a necessary component of a true leader of Israel.
Rabbi Nachum Eleizer Rabinovitz is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaHesder Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim. He received his smeikha from Ner Yisrael, and has served as a pulpit rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Toronto, Canada. He has an M.A. in Mathematics from John Hopkins University and a Pd.D. in Philosophy of Science from the University of Toronto. He is one of the foremost scholars on the Rambam, and has written several books including a commentary called Yad Peshuta on the Rambam’s Mishne Torah.
Translated by Nimrod Soll.