Leadership is a heavy burden. Even Moshe Rabbeinu himself had difficulties and turned to God for help. God answered him, suggesting that seventy elders be selected to form a leadership body. These elders were not meant to be independent leaders, but rather extensions, as it were, of Moshe Rabbeinu:
“I shall take of the spirit that is upon you and I shall place it upon them” – they are to receive some of Moshe’s exalted spirit; they are not independent prophets.
But further on in the story, things become more complicated:
“And two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other – Medad; the spirit rested upon them (for they were among those who were written, but they did not go out to the Tent), and they prophesied within the camp. And a young man ran and told Moshe, and he said: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Yehoshua ben Nun, who was Moshe’s attendant from his youth, answered and said: “My master, Moshe – restrain them!””
Here we encounter two men who did not receive part of Moshe’s spirit, but they were prophesying in the camp. The Gemara provides further details:
“What was the prophecy that they were prophesying? They said: ‘Moshe will die, and Yehoshua will lead [the nation of] Israelinto the Land.’
Abba Hanin said, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: ‘They were prophesying concerning the quails: Arise, quails! Arise, quails!’
Rav Nahman said: ‘They were prophesying about Gog and Magog…’.” (Sanhedrin 17a)
The Sages offer three alternative explanations as to the subject and content of this prophecy: leadership (politics), the quails (economy), and Gog and Magog (apocalypse). Clearly, these are three subjects that concern both the individual and the nation with regard to the future – but why do these prophecies arouse such strong opposition on the part of Yehoshua? Is he worried about an uprising against Moshe? Why should these men be restrained?
The commentators offer two different interpretations of the word “kelaem” (“restrain them”), based upon two different meanings of the root “k-l-a”, which means restraining or imprisoning. According to the first interpretation, Yehoshua meant that they should be restrained in their prophecy; i.e., they should be barred from speaking any further. The second interpretation perceives Yehoshua’s utterance as a proposal that they be imprisoned. Neither option seems to make sense: would either imprisonment of these men or silencing them help to bolster Moshe’s status? Can truth ever be silenced in the long term merely by use of force?
The Gemara, as well as Rashi, interpret the word “kelaem” in a completely different way, thereby answering our question. “What is [the meaning of the word] ‘kelaem’? Yehoshua said to Moshe: Give them communal responsibility, and they will perish on their own.”
Yehoshua did not want the men to be imprisoned, nor did he want their speech to be silenced. What he wanted was that they be required to assume leadership; to support their talk with some action. To his mind, it requires no great brilliance to prophecy “within the camp”. The real challenge is to translate criticism into practical leadership, to actually take part in the difficult task of leading the nation. Yehoshua asks Moshe, “Please, let them lead a little; give them some communal responsibility – and suddenly you will see their blazing speeches dying down, collapsing under the heavy burden of application and realization.”
In view of this interpretation, Moshe’s response is nothing short of astonishing: “If only all of God’s people would be prophets!” Indeed, their prophecy is not a reflection of their having received some of my spirit; it is an original prophecy from God. If everyone experienced such authentic and original revelation, there would be no need for teachers and leaders: God would lead His people directly.
Moshe is telling Yehoshua: Let this originality be. The day will come when “A PERSON WILL NO LONGER TEACH HIS FELLOW, or his brother, saying, ‘Know God’ – for everyone will know Me, from small to great, so promises God…” (Yirmiyahu 31:33).