By Simon Gordon
And Moses said unto Hobab, …Moses’ father-in-law: ‘We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us…’
And he said unto him: ‘I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.’
And he said: ‘Leave us not, I pray thee…’
Although Moses’ entreaty is never answered, commentators both classical and modern are unanimously agreed that his father-in-law can’t have returned home. How else can the reference to his descendants – the Kenites – in the Book of Judges be explained?
Yet in the context of parashat Behaalot’cha, it’s much less clear. Hobab – formerly known as Yitro – was Moses’ management consultant. Back in Shemot 18, Yitro advised Moses to create a hierarchy of officials and delegate authority, telling him, “The business is too heavy for you; you can’t do it alone.”
Behaalot’cha is the first we hear of Yitro since Shemot 18. So it is curious that as soon as he expresses his intention to leave, Moses’s management problems return with a vengeance. Caught between constantly complaining Israelites and an incensed God, Moses finally gives up.
“I can’t bear this people alone, for it is too heavy for me,” Moses tells God, in almost identical language to Yitro’s in Shemot. “Please kill me if I have found favour in Your sight.”
This time, it is God who provides a solution. Whereas, previously, Moses taught God’s laws to his officials for them to transmit to the people, now God communicates with the seventy elders directly – albeit only briefly, and only in the Tent of Meeting.
In so doing, God literally lifts Moses’s burden: “He took from the spirit that was on him [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders.”
Yet the prospect of others sharing Moses’s responsibility long-term seems to be unacceptable not just to the people, but also to God.
When Eldad and Medad continue prophesying outside the confines of the Tent of Meeting, Joshua tells Moses to restrain them. Moses contradicts him: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them.”
But is God any more democratic, or empathetic, than Joshua? When Miriam and Aaron later claim to be on a par with their younger brother as prophets, God is quick to put them in their place: “If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a dream… Not so my servant Moses …with him I speak mouth to mouth, openly.”
Moses, this parasha tells us, was the humblest man alive. Ever since the burning bush, his worthiness to lead the Israelites seems to be precisely that he considers himself unworthy of the task.
But Moses pays the price for the role he never wanted. The burden of mediating between God and a rebellious people does ultimately break him. Because of the one instance when the people provoke him, God will deny him entry to the land to which he has been leading the people for forty years.
Moses cannot escape his duty or his demise. Our national story is a triumph only because his is a tragedy.
Simon Gordon is a professional writer and was formerly assistant editor of Mosaic Magazine. He is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.