[Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, known as Sfas Emes,the title of his magnum opus, was one of the most prominent Chassidic masters of the 19th century. Many of his writings focus on helping the downtrodden and persecuted Jews of his time find meaning in their existence. He employs the deep mystical concepts of Kabbala in his compositions and works to make them applicable to daily life. The following is based on an essay found in his classic commentary on the Torah.]
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Assemble for Me seventy people of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people’s elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You. (Numbers 11:16)
This Parsha introduces a crucial point in the evolution of the nascent Jewish nation. The leadership now shifts from one person (Moses) to seventy. Who were these new leaders? Rashi explains that they were the former Jewish taskmasters in Egypt. The Egyptians appointed Jews to make sure the work quota was met. (The Germans did the same thing in the concentration camps; they appointed kapos, Jewish prisoners to supervise the other inmates.) These taskmasters tried to protect their brethren and when the work quota was not met, it was these Jewish supervisors who took the beatings. They used their position to protect Jews, not lord over them.
The Midrash uses a metaphor to describe the change in leadership.
This can be likened to building a palace whose foundation rests on two ships. As long as the ships remain together, the palace stands but if the ships come apart, the palace will collapse.
The metaphor of ships serving as the foundation for a palace symbolizes the connection between this earthly world and G-d’s infinite universe above. When we live in harmony-when synagogues, Jewish organizations, and populations work with and not against each other, when the ships are connected, then there will be peace “upstairs”.
How does this relate to Moses’ transfer of leadership to the elders? If the foundation of leadership is flush (like the ships), then it’s not only robust and effective, it will also affect the higher realms of the universe. G-d’s precedence in heaven is dependent on human activity. The lesson for the new leaders is that unity is not only important on a human level, it is important on a cosmic level as well.
A major concept in Chassidic thought is that spiritual realities are dependent on earthly activities; every time you do a mitzvah, you are not only affecting yourself and the people around you, you are also having impact in the heavenly worlds. It is similar to rain. How is rain created? The sun’s heat evaporates the ocean’s water. It remains in the atmosphere as an invisible vapor until it condenses, first into clouds and then into raindrops. Condensation happens when the air is cooled. Rain from above only comes when water, air, temperature, atmospheric pressure, and others factors work harmoniously.
That means the when you give tzedakah (charity) or do some other mitzvah, in addition to helping the person or people in need, you are also having an impact on the Almighty’s universe. Every time you control your anger, you benefit not only yourself but also the person or people to whom to are speaking-and because you were able to overcome your instinct, a positive spiritual force is put into the world.
Why were the seventy elders chosen? They were the ones who suffered. They were the intermediaries whose job it was to enforce Jewish labor. They allowed themselves to be punished rather than abusing their Jewish underlings.
Sefas Emes uses this idea to find meaning in some of the physical and emotional suffering we experience. The more one is able to accept G-d’s plan for you and endure some of the hardship it might entail, the more effective you can be for building a foundation for G-d’s presence in the world, which in turn effect spiritual world above. One of life’s great existentialist questions is, what role do I play-i.e. what significance does my life have-in the grand scheme of things?
When one’s mission in life is to create a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds, actions take on new significance because how you deal with life’s vicissitudes has an impact. If you find yourself in a dark place due to something life has thrown your way, you can remain angry and resentful or you can choose to accept that this world has a Creator who has placed you in it to accomplish something no one else can. The more you do so, the more you are entrenching G-d’s presence in the world. This, in a nutshell, is one of the major themes of Chassidic thought and explains why the Baal Shem Tov and his disciplines used to wander and go places far off the grid. The more light they could put in a world of darkness, the more they were brining G-d’s presence here, was their way of affecting the cosmos.
There’s not merely a change in leaders in this week’s Torah portion, there’s a change in the template for what Jewish leadership looks like. The elders are the paradigm for future generations because they were more successful, in certain way, than Moses, the ultimate leader. They reached lows, hardships, and pain, he never did, yet they were able to remain loyal to their values and Jewish mission during the process. In the words of Sfas Emes, “the deeper you get into the burdens of being in exile (galut) but are able to reinforce your Jewish identity, the deeper you personally have made the Almighty more established in the world. Only you, with your experiences and challenges, can bring light into dark places no one else has been to. This is your unique imprint in the world.
This is an entirely new method (and program) for processing your life. Your actions are far from being insignificant. Your mitzvot aren’t just mitzvot, they are cosmic catalysts and bring light to places that until now have been dark.
May we all find the strength to confront the times of emotional darkness we all experience and find our inner light so that it will shine for the people in our lives and remember that the more we get out of ourselves, the more we get out of the darkness and bring light to this world and the next.
[Sources: Rashi (11:16) quoting Sifri Behaalosecha 1:42: 16; Bamidbar Rabbah; Amos 9:6 with Yalkut Shimoni; A Sefat Emmet for Behaalotecha: Formation of Boats by Rav Moshe Taragin]