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The Burden Bearers (Bamidbar)

When we think of political leaders, we generally picture heads of state, such as kings, presidents or prime ministers. Yet no individual can run a nation alone; even the most competent of rulers relies upon a dedicated team of advisers, diplomats, legislators, magistrates and bureaucrats for assistance in tending to the public’s many needs. Ancient Israel was no different in this regard. Of course, Moshe was Israel’s Chief Rabbi, its Chief Justice, its Chief Executive Officer, and its Commander-in-Chief. But there were other “chiefs” as well. These were the twelve chieftains—nesi’im, in Hebrew. As the representatives of the tribes, the nesi’im filled a number of important administrative, religious, and security functions.    And though they never attained the same prestige as Moshe, it is clear that he could not have managed without them. Nowhere does this become more evident than in the Torah’s fourth book, Bamidbar, which we begin this week.

We meet the nesi’im for the first time at the beginning of Bamidbar, as preparations are being made to assemble the army that will spearhead Israel’s campaign to conquer the land of Canaan:

Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron. With you there shall be a man from each tribe, one who is head of his father’s house. These are the names of the men who shall stand with you; for [the tribe of] Reuben, Elitzur the son of Shedeur. For [the tribe of] Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. For [the tribe of] Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab. For [the tribe of] Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zu’ar. For [the tribe of] Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon. For the children of Joseph: for [the tribe of] Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; for [the tribe of] Manasseh, Gamliel the son of Pedazur. For [the tribe of] Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni. For [the tribe of] Dan, Ahi’ever the son of Ammishaddai. For [the tribe of] Asher, Pagi’el the son of Ochran. For [the tribe of] Gad, Eliasaph the son of De’uel. For [the tribe of] Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan. These were the ones summoned by the congregation, the princes of the tribes of their fathers; they are the heads of the thousands of Israel (Num. 1:1-16).

The formation of the Israelite camp in the desert

The formation of the Israelite camp in the desert

Aside from the names of the nesi’im, there is precious little information that we have about them. The most we know is that these same nesi’im appear three more times in the book of Bamidbar. Later in this week’s Parshah, the nesi’im organize the nation into the four flag-formations according to which it was to travel and to camp in the desert (Num. 2:1-34). In next week’s Parshah, appropriately titled “Nasso,” they  offer a series of sacrifices to inaugurate the newly-constructed Tabernacle (Num. 7:1-89). And in the Parshah that follows that, “Beha’alotcha,” the nesi’im march the nation, for the first time, according to the formation established a few chapters earlier, as the long-awaited procession to Canaan commences (Num. 10:12-28).   

Following Beha’alotcha, the next Parshah in the book of Bamidbar is “Shelach.” In this Parshah, as in the three Parshahs that precede it, the nesi’im once again play a prominent role: in this case, they are sent to Canaan to gather intelligence that will aid the Israelites during their impending invasion. Surprisingly, however, none of the nesi’im that appear in the previous three Parshahs are invited to participate in this mission; instead, a totally different group is chosen:

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.” So Moshe sent them from the desert of Paran by the word of Hashem. All of them were men of distinction; they were the heads of the children of Israel. These are their names: For the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zakkur. For the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori. For the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jepphunneh. For the tribe of Issachar, Yigal the son of Joseph. For the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun. For the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu. For the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi. For the tribe of Joseph, the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi. For the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli. For the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael. For the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi. For the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. These are the names of the men Moshe sent to scout the Land… (Num. 13:1-16)

Both structurally and substantively, this passage seems nearly identical to the one which opens our Parshah. In both cases, a group of “chieftains” (נשיאים), each of whom is a “head” (ראש) of his “father’s tribe” (מטות אבותם / מטה אבותיו), is tasked with an important military assignment. Yet the first set of nesi’im, whose members had experience performing such assignments, and who had served dutifully in a variety of other contexts as well, is curiously left off the roster of reconnoiters. Why? What changed between the middle of Beha’alotcha and the beginning of Shelach?

In fact, quite a bit had changed in the interim. As mentioned above, the last time before Shelach that we encounter the nesi’im occurs as they are supervising the first leg of Israel’s journey towards Canaan. It should have been a fairly straightforward operation to conduct. Instead, however, it ends in utter chaos. When the nation settles in the environs of Paran (later renamed Kivrot Hata’avah), some of its members contract a “craving” for “meat” (Num. 11:4). They “wail” loudly in their misery, and recall with resentment the “fish, cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions and garlic that we used to eat in Egypt” (ibid. 4-5). Moshe hears these complaints and grows despondent. So he turns to Hashem and airs his frustration:

Moshe said to Hashem, “Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden (משא) of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry (שאהו) them in your bosom as the nurse carries (ישא) the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ Alone I cannot carry (לשאת) this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune” (Num. 11:11-15).

Map of Israel's journeys in the desert

Map of Israel’s journeys in the desert

Moshe is exasperated, and with good reason: he cannot cope with the Israelites’ constant criticism. As readers, we recognize Moshe’s plight and we empathize with his sentiments. Less easy to understand, however, is Moshe’s claim that “I carry this entire people alone.” This is an ironic charge to level following three Parshas whose focus is precisely the ways in which others—namely, the nesi’im—participate alongside Moshe in the leadership of the nation. And it is doubly ironic when one considers that the Hebrew words for “carry” and “burden”—terms which Moshe employs no less than four times in a span of five verses, and which appear another three times in Hashem’s response to Moshe (Num. 11:17)—derive from the same root as does the word nesi’im: נ.ש.א. Throughout the book of Bamidbar, the nesi’im had been Moshe’s fellow “burden-bearers.” Yet in this instance, he apparently believed that they had failed to shoulder their share of the load.

For their part, the nesi’im would probably have been hurt had they heard Moshe protest over what he perceived to be a lack of support. They may even have felt unappreciated. It is difficult to imagine, however, that Moshe had intended to belittle the service of the nesi’im, or even that he had simply forgotten about the many ways in which they had helped him in the past. More likely, Moshe—though grateful to the nesi’im for the aid that they had provided him until now—was beginning to realize that their talents were limited. Granted, the nesi’im excelled at coordinating logistics. They moved the nation from point A to point B with remarkable efficiency. But what the nesi’im could not move, in Kivrot Hata’avah, were the people’s hearts and minds. During a moment of national panic, the nesi’im had been unable to inspire the people to adopt a more positive perspective; as the German sociologist Max Weber might put it, they had displayed a deficit of “charismatic authority.”

Whether it was fair to expect that the nesi’im could wield this sort of moral influence over the members of their respective tribes is unclear. What is clear, at any rate, is that Hashem treats Moshe’s concerns seriously. In Beha’alotcha, Hashem reacts to Moshe’s petition by forming a group of “seventy prophets” who will provide the people with renewed moral guidance (Num. 11:16-17). Then, in the next Parshah, Hashem institutes a remarkable shift of policy: he lets Moshe pick his own nesi’im. Recall that in our Parshah, Hashem had dictated to Moshe the names of the individual nesi’im who were to participate in taking the census (Num. 1:5). In Shelach, by contrast, Hashem merely records the general qualifications that should be possessed by the nesi’im nominated to scout the land of Canaan: “each for his father’s house, each a chieftain” (Num. 13:2). Nowhere, however, does Hashem specify to Moshe who those nesi’im must be. Indeed, Hashem carefully emphasizes that the nesi’im whom Moshe selects shall be “sent by you” (Num. 13:2). And sure enough, Moshe seizes this opportunity to recraft his staff: rather than falling back on the familiar faces, he turns instead to individuals of his own choosing. Thus, the text notes (twice): “these were [the men] sent by Moshe” (Num. 13:3, 15). For Moshe, then, this is a moment ripe with promise and potential. It is an invitation to fashion his own team of leaders, and it is undertaken “’על פי ה”—with the approval, perhaps even the encouragement, of Hashem Himself (Num. 13:3).

Yet the optimism surrounding this initiative does not last long. When the spies finish their tour of Canaan, they return to Kadesh and report that the Canaanites are giants and that their cities are unconquerable. This spurs mass hysteria and ultimately leads Hashem to punish the Israelites with forty years of wandering in the desert. It is a tragic end to an episode that began with such high hope. Especially tragic, for Moshe, is the fact that so many of the grievances leveled against him during this episode, the sin of the spies, softly echo those that he himself had given voice to a few chapters earlier, in Kivrot Hata’avah. For instance:

  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, Moshe insists: “I cannot [לא אוכל] carry (lit. “raise up”) this people [העם] all alone, for it is too heavy for me [כבד הוא ממני]” (Num. 11:14). In Kadesh, the spies declare: “We cannot [לא נוכל] confront (lit. “rise up” against) this people [העם] for they are too strong for us [חזק הוא ממנו] (Num. 13:31).
  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, Moshe challenges: “Did I give birth to this people?” (Num. 11:12). In Kadesh, Hashem offers Moshe to do just that: “Hashem said to Moshe, “How long will this people provoke Me? How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst? I should strike this nation with a plague and annihilate them; then I will make out of you a nation larger and stronger than they!” (Num. 14:12). (Of course, the prospect of dealing with a nation even “larger and stronger” than the Israelites is exactly the opposite of what Moshe had been looking for!)
  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, Moshe wonders: “[Why] do You say to me, ‘Carry this people in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the land You promised their forefathers [האדמה אשר נשבעת לאבותם] (Num. 11:12).” In Kadesh, Hashem decrees: “This people shall not see the land that I promised to their forefathers [הארץ אשר נשבעתי לאבותם]…”  (Num. 14:23).
  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, Moshe claims that he would rather die than deal with the Israelites (Num. 13:15). In Kadesh, the people cry that they would rather die than deal with the Canaanites (Num. 14:2).
  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, Moshe demands that Hashem appoint new leaders for the Israelites. In Kadesh, the Israelites similarly demand: “Let us appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt!’” (Num. 14:4)—the only time in the entire Torah that the nation ever suggests replacing Moshe.
  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, Hashem seems to solve the perceived problem of insufficient leadership by “increasing the spirit [רוח] that is upon you [i.e. Moshe] and bestowing it upon [others]” (Num. 11:17; see also 11:25-26 for three more instances of this key-word). Moshe even pines: “If only all Hashem’s people were prophets, that Hashem would bestow His spirit [רוח] upon them!” (Num. 11:29). In Kadesh, however, Hashem laments that of all the nesi’im sent to scout the land of Canaan, “[only] Caleb my servant was possessed by a different spirit [רוח]” (Num. 14:24).
  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, two of the newly-ordained prophets undermine Moshe’s authority by skipping a meeting that Moshe had called. Yehoshua pushes for these prophets to be disciplined, but it is Yehoshua whom Moshe rebukes instead: “Moshe said to Yeshoshua, ‘Are you zealous for my sake?” (Num. 11:29). In Kadesh, by contrast, Moshe must lie helplessly outstretched as he listens to Yehoshua attempt (in vain) to defend his master’s authority against the masses calling for him to be deposed (Num. 14:4-10).
  • In Kivrot Hata’avah, as mentioned, the key-word “נ.ש.א”—from the same root as nesi’im—appears a symbolic seven times in total. There, Moshe uses it to describe the Israelites as a “burden” that he must “carry.” In Kadesh, the same root appears seven times as well (Num. 13:23, 14:1, 14:18, 14:19, 14:30, 14:33 and 14:43). Here, it is used primarily to refer to the “burden” of sin that Israel now bears.

In sum, the pointed parallels between these passages underscore the irony that weaves its way through them. At Kivrot Hata’ava, Moshe implied—however subtly—that the leadership of the nesi’im was inadequate. He may even have been justified in doing so. Yet at Kadesh, the team of nesi’im that Moshe settles upon accuses him of inadequate leadership.  Thus, the nation fares no better under the second set of nesi’im than it does under the first. In fact, it fares far worse.

Taken together, then, the series of events that is recounted in the first four Parshahs of the book of Bamidbar communicate a single, simple truth: we don’t always want what we wish for. At Kivroth Hata’avah, the Israelites clamor for meat, only to grow ill from its overconsumption (Num. 14:33-35). At Kadesh, they cry because they must enter the land of Canaan, only to cry once more when Hashem announces that they are no longer permitted to enter (Num. 14:39-45) And if our analysis is correct, then, to some extent, Moshe also learns this lesson in the book of Bamidbar: he dismisses a group of nesi’im over their inability to influence the attitudes of the people, only to replace them with a group of nesi’im whose ability to influence the attitudes of the people proves catastrophic.

“The grass always looks greener on the other side” – nowhere is this truer than Bamidbar: in the desert. Yet, as these Parshahs demonstrate, no land and no leader is without its flaws. Neither, for that matter, is any parent or child, any school or job, any home or community. And though alternatives may seem attractive from a distance, they are not necessarily so upon closer inspection. In order to spare ourselves the trouble of bouncing from one disappointment to the next, then, we must resist the urge to give up on a given project, institution or relationship the moment it presents a challenge. Challenges are part of the fabric of life. We cannot avoid them by running away from them, but we can overcome them, by acknowledging their inevitability and embracing them as opportunities to grow. For in the end, that is what life requires from us most if it is to produce enduring happiness: the chance to do so.

Shabbat shalom! 

1 Comment

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great essay Alex! Thank you for the insights.

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