This week’s portion presents us with an interesting window into the development of religious institutional life in the wilderness. Hitherto, Moses exercised exclusive leadership over the Israelites, tolerating little dissidence. Those who dissented were eliminated from the community either by a calamitous event or through a purge.
In this weeks portion however there is reference to two events which point to loosening of the controls-perhaps a move toward the democratization of leadership. Chapter 11:16 presents Moses with necessary challenge to convene 70 of the elders in the Tent of Meeting in order to give counsel to Moses, and share the burden of leadership and governance. In verse 27 of the same chapter we read of the incident of Eldad and Medad who independently prophesied and whom Joshua wanted silenced, by force if necessary. Moses resisted Joshua’s suggestion, rejecting rule by oligarchy and embracing the talent and leadership of these two.
It would seem that Moses learned an invaluable lesson about leadership. Control by fiat isn’t necessarily the most effective form of leadership. While one person may be an extraordinary visionary it doesn’t necessarily follow that he possesses all the answers. Moses was prepared to convene the 70 wise men in the Tent of Meeting and by doing so underscored his commitment to the process of democratization and shared leadership. This also becomes evident when he allows Eldad and Medad to continue their prophetic work. Incidentally, it is worth considering the possibility that Korach’s rebellion resulted from Moshe’s attempt at shared leadership and democratization.
It would appear that rabbinic leadership in America would be so much more effective if they followed Moshe’s example and took counsel from the well educated lay leadership. Elitist rabbinic groups such as the Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah have much to learn from the tolerance shown by Moshe Rabbenu as well as from God’s command to convene the lay leadership so that governance can be shared making it more meaningful and more effective.