The Jewish people seemed poised for entry into the Promised Land when suddenly; “The nation became a group of kvetchers, complaining evilly in the ears of the Lord saying, ‘Who will feed us meat? Remember the fish which we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the onions and the garlic’” (Numbers 11:1, 4, 5)
The Divine response is to tell Moses to gather 70 men from among the elders of Israel who will help bear the burden and upon whom the spirit of the Lord will rest (11:16, 17).
Why are the Jews so vexed and unsettled, and how does God’s response alleviate their feelings? They want meat, and God tells Moses to give them 70 rabbis!
I believe that the subtext of this trialogue among the Israelites, Moses and God is that Moses is now being confronted by a new generation, by the youth who left Egypt and are now maturing into adulthood. Each generation requires its own teachers; each generation has its own dreams, needs and vision. The adults who left Egypt with Moses required a Rav; their children who were now growing to maturity required a Rebbe.
Now, that the Jews had collectively left the land of oppression, followed their seer into the desert and were about to begin a new life in the Promised Land, they had to put the general notion of national freedom into personal perspective. Each individual had to understand how to utilize the gift of freedom to find their individual purpose within the context of G-d’s land and G-d’s Torah. At first, Moses too did not understand what they needed, and when he sent out scouts to tour the land and inspire the people with its bounty, he told them “strengthen yourselves and take the fruit of the land” and bring back luscious grapes.
Ultimately, Moses understands this new generation requires a personalized Rebbe rather than a G-d–imbued Rav. Moses recognizes that this new generation requires a new leader: “Let the Lord God of the differing spirits of the various flesh and blood human beings appoint a leader over the congregation, one who will take them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16).
Joshua was a very different type of leader — a great scholar and prophet and also a man of the people. This made him the right person to bring this generation into the Promised Land. They had cried out for meat but what they really needed were leaders, who would prophesy from within the encampment rather than from the distant Tent of Meeting, where God resided. They needed a Rebbe.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.