“Kill me now,” Moshe says to G-d when the people complain about the food… again. “I don’t want to live through seeing the people fall to such a low. I’d rather die.”
A couple of verses earlier Moshe said, “I cannot bear the burden of this people any longer. Have I given birth to them that you demand that I carry them in my arms…?”
G-d responds that Moshe should gather 70 elders to assist him in managiging the people. Indeed, Moshe could not bear the burden alone and required the support of a team to back him and share the task with him. Moshe surely found his position very isolating. He had no friends, could have no friends. His only peer was Aaron, and Aaron was surely a source of comfort to him, but he was extremely alone. In the evening, when he came home from the office, he did not have a family to return to. This is evident from end of the Parsha when Miriam and Aaron discuss the plight of Moshe’s wife, from whom he had separated.
Moshe’s own siblings had no right to judge Moshe’s actions and discuss them; we certainly must not venture to judge. But we can see the terrible toll that this lifestyle took on Moshe. It sapped his strength and drove him at such times as this to despair. At a later time it will try his patience sorely when the people complain about water and he responds in anger. Moshe’s tremendous capacity for patience stems from his even greater humility. But even Moshe was human and had his limits. In this instance he threw in the towel. He had enough.
G-d does not scold Moshe, He rather provides a solution. 70 Elders. Why 70?
The Ba’al HaTurim, the great author of the enormous Halachic work, the Tur, has a commentary on the Chumash. The Ba’al HaTurim is known for his terse remarks; his commentary takes up very little space on the page. Often his commentary consists just of a couple of words, or a reference to the numerical value of a particular phrase and a matching value of another phrase. In this instance the Ba’al HaTurim enigmatically goes all out, in what is likely his longest comment on any phrase in the Torah. Why 70? Because there were 70 people in Jacob’s group when they initially descended to Egypt. Because there are 70 terms used throughout the Torah referring to the Almighty. Because there are 70 terms used in the Torah referring to the nation of Israel. Because the nations of the world are divided into 70. Because Jerusalem has 70 names. The Baal HaTurim lists all 70 terms referring to the Almighty and then lists the 70 terms used referring to the Israelites.
What does this have to do with the 70 elders?
Well, the family of 70 souls that descended to Egypt initially was the sapling, the seed, out of which sprang forth the millions of people comprising the nation of Israel. The seventy nations of the world represent all elements of the diversity of humankind. The 70 names of G-d and Israel, respectively, relay the facets of Israel’s personality and G-d’s relationship with them. The 70 names of Jerusalem reflects the nature of the city as multi tribal and even multinational. For whichever reason there are seventy of each of the above, there are seventy elders to be chosen.
As usual, the Ba’al HaTurim draws a parallel and leaves the rest it to our speculation.
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