Parasha Beha'alotcha: A rebbe and not a rav

Jewish people seemed poised for entry into Promised Land when suddenly the nation became a group of kvetchers, complaining to the Lord.

Sunflower 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss (
Sunflower 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss (
The Jewish people seemed poised for entry into the Promised Land when suddenly the nation became a group of kvetchers, complaining to the Lord… “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 11:4, 5) The degeneration continues, Moses tells God that he has no meat to give the nation, and that he can no longer bear the burden of leading them. The divine response is to tell Moses to gather 70 men from the elders of Israel who will help bear the burden, and upon whom the spirit of the Lord will rest (Numbers 11:16,17).
Why are the Jews so vexed, and how does God’s response alleviate their feelings? They want meat and God tells Moses to supply 70 rabbis! After all the miracles of the Exodus, it’s difficult to understand the disillusionment of the Israelites, and even more difficult to understand God’s solution.
I believe that the subtext of this trialogue between the Israelites, Moses and God is that Moses is now being confronted by a new generation – by the youth who left Egypt with their parents and are maturing into adulthood. This new generation has different needs and expectations. Each generation requires its own teachers; each generation has its own dreams, needs and visions. The adults who left Egypt with Moses required a “rav”; their children who were now growing to maturity required a “rebbe.”
It has often been said that the difference between a rav and a rebbe is that when a rav chastises, everyone thinks he is speaking to their neighbor, whereas when a rebbe chastises, everyone feels he is speaking personally to them. I believe there is another difference. A rav speaks with the voice of tradition and conveys the words of God to the entire nation, giving a message which expresses the vision of our eternal Torah. A rebbe speaks personally to every individual, taking the eternal message of God and making it relevant to their needs. A rav speaks to the generation; a rebbe speaks to the individuals in each generation.
Moses was an exalted prophet who came to the Israelites from the faraway palace of Pharaoh. He continued to lead them from the tent of The Divine Meeting, three parasangs from their encampment. Moses did not speak to the Israelites with his own voice, since “he was heavy of speech and of uncircumcised tongue.” He thundered with the voice of God presenting the divine message of freedom and responsibility.
His power emanated from the divine, which enabled him to unite the nation and give them the confidence to follow him and God into the desert. Moses came from the distance and looked into the distance. He was a ro’eh (spelled with an alef); a lofty and majestic seer.
Now that the Jews had left the land of oppression, followed their seer and were about to begin a new life in the Promised Land, they had to put the elusive notion of national freedom into personal perspective.
Each had to understand how to use the gift of freedom to find his individual purpose, and his individual expression within the context of God’s land and Torah.
Each individual had to find his own instrument within the divine orchestra. For this, they required an individual pastor (ro’eh with an ayin and not an alef). They could not articulate this need because they didn’t quite understand it. They thought their discomfort stemmed from boredom with the daily manna. That’s why they were not even sure which food they wanted; meat, watermelon, leeks or garlic. What they really needed was individual nourishment for their souls.
At first, Moses also did not understand and so, when he sent out the scouts to tour the land and inspire the people with its bounty, he told them “strengthen yourselves and take the fruit of the land.”
Ultimately, Moses understands that this new generation requires a personalized rebbe rather than a Godimbued rav. This was a trait which one as close to God as Moses was did not have the wherewithal to develop.
His closeness to God conflicted with their immediate individual needs. Moses recognized that this new generation required 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 than Moses – a great scholar and prophet, but also a man of the people. This made him the right person to bring the 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.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.