The Torah tells us that Moshe assembled seventy elders, upon whom his prophetic spirit rested, enabling them to experience nevu’a (prophecy). Immediately afterward, we read of two men who “remained in the camp,” named Eldad and Meidad, who also prophesied. Yehoshua asks Moshe to imprison them, but Moshe refuses, claiming, “If only the entire nation would be prophets!”
The Torah does not inform us as to what precisely Eldad and Meidad said in their prophecy, nor does it explain this argument between Moshe and Yehoshua regarding the proper response to this prophecy.
The Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (17a) says that Hashem’s command that Moshe take seventy elders and assign them to a leadership position would compel him to treat some tribes less fairly: as seventy is not divisible by twelve, he could not select an equal number from every tribe. He therefore called upon six people from every tribe, a total of seventy-two, but only seventy would receive prophecy; the remaining two would stay outside. Thus, no tribe would feel cheated. Eldad and Meidad, who were included among those invited, decided that they did not deserve membership in the Sanhedrin; they therefore waived their nomination and remained in the camp. As reward for their humility, they received prophecy anyway.
But what was the content of their prophecy? We find several different views in the Gemara. According to one position, they foresaw that Moshe would die and his disciple, Yehoshua, would lead Benei Yisrael into the Land. Another view maintains that Eldad and Meidad predicted the arrival of the quail, which the parasha later describes. Yet another view suggests that they foresaw the battle of Gog and Maggog.
Interestingly, all three views identify the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad with issues somehow related to leadership – either the identity of the leader; the quail, which involved the manner in which the leader relates to the people; or the ultimate battle of Gog and Maggog, after which will emerge a single, accepted leadership over the entire world. In short, Eldad and Meidad prophesied about leadership.
We can now understand why Yehoshua immediately seeks their imprisonment. After all, they call Moshe’s leadershhip into question; Yehoshua does not want to appear as seeking to replace Moshe.
Moshe’s response, however, is interesting: “If only the entire nation would be prophets!” What does he mean? Moshe sees no problem in having more prophets around; to the contrary, he views such a phenomenon as a testament to his personal success. Moshe’s aim was that the entire nation would become prophets, that they would all reach his level. Chazal adopted this principle in Masechet Avot, in the very first mishna. This mishna traces the transmission of the mesorah (oral tradition) and concludes, “They said three things… establish many students.” In other words, the goal is to teach as many students as possible who will follow the teacher’s path. This is how Moshe saw his task, and this is how the scholars in every period throughout Jewish history saw theirs.
We currently find ourselves towards the end of the academic year. Many of our graduating high school seniors are leaving to study Torah in Eretz Yisrael. Beyond the importance of Torah learning itself, which equals all the mitzvot, there is additional importance embodied by the dictum, “establish many students,” that students should follow the path paved for us by our predecessors generations ago, the path of Torah study and its practical application, with the ultimate goal being, “If only the entire nation would be prophets!”