By Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
Rosenkranz and Guildenstern, Abbott and Costello, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Simon and Garfunkel, Gilbert and Sullivan, Thelma and Louise and Bert and Ernie. History, art, music and literature are replete with dynamic duos, but possibly the earliest duo in recorded history appears in this week’s sidra (parasha). I am referring, of course, to Eldad and Meidad. We are introduced to Eldad and Meidad after Moshe gathered the 70 elders and bestowed prophetic powers upon them. The Torah describes the way in which most of the prophets dispersed once they were finished giving over their prophecy, except for two of them, Eldad and Meidad, who remained in the camp and continued to experience prophecy. This was considered to be an unusual sight, one that even upset Joshua, who felt that this affront was a capital offense.
What was their vision about? The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin offers three possibilities: The first suggestion was that Moshe would die and Joshua would bring the Jews into the land of Israel. The second was that the Jewish people would complain about the food they lacked, would consequently be fed more quail than they could stomach and would succumb to gruesome deaths. The third view suggested was that Eldad and Meidad envisioned an apocalyptic scene in the distant future, in which the battle for world dominance begins on Israeli soil. It is the battle of Gog u’Magog, the war to end all wars, when the nations of the world will conspire to annihilate the Jewish people.
Our sages, in their interpretation, identified three different events in the history of the Israelites, but each of these may help explain why Yehoshua was so upset to hear about them. You see, each one of these prophecies represents a different deep-seated fear we all experience. The first view — that the prophecy was about Moshe’s death and Joshua’s leadership into the promised land — represents fear of change and of life’s inevitable yet challenging transitions. As we conclude/embark upon graduation season, this is a fear experienced by many parents and children alike. Whether it is beginning high school, leaving for a gap year in Israel or beginning the empty-nest phase in life, each of these transitions is fraught with uncertainty and can be a source of considerable anxiety, and Joshua was afraid of the next stage in his life, too.
The second opinion — that Eldad and Meidad prophesied about the quail — represents the fear that our desires will go unfulfilled. Anyone who experiences profound wanderlust — or has unfulfilled ambitions for the finer things in life — knows that there are places they will never see or delicious foods they will never taste. Joshua, and perhaps all of us, would prefer to silence the prophecy of the quail, because deep down inside we know that we cannot have the charcuterie boards, the expensive scotch and dream vacations constantly — and that if we can, we are fearful of the day that will inevitably come when we won’t anymore or when they will cease to be sources of pleasure for us. For the only thing more painful than not having quail is realizing that it makes us sick to our stomachs. How many young and thirsty, ambitious and bright-eyed people grow up and realize the futility of the extravagance they wasted their whole lives chasing?
Lastly, there is the image of Gog u’Magog — that final nevuah (prophecy) we wish we could ignore. According to the translation attributed to Yonatan ben Uziel, Gog u’Magog represents the perennial national fear — when all nations of the world join forces to turn on us. We have spent most of Jewish history bouncing between one mortal enemy and another; those who are our “friends” at one time become our enemies at others, and the reverse. The prophecy of Gog u’Magog reminds us that there are few people we can rely upon or trust to have Jewish interests in mind.
In light of each of these approaches, we can well understand why Joshua desperately wanted to silence the prophecy. It is so much easier to dismiss these voices as the mad rantings of the village drunkard, the insane person standing on the street corner with a sign saying “Repent of your sins! The end of the world is nigh!” Moshe understood the importance of hearing these prophecies after all. Coming face to face with future unpleasant truths prepares us to be resilient and allows us to identify our own inner strength. Yes, we fear change, but the ability to attain a new equilibrium in its wake shows us that we have reservoirs of strength for which we previously did not give ourselves credit. And as for the quail and all of the other unrealized dreams and uncharted courses, there is comfort in knowing that fulfilling those desires may not sustain us, that our eyes are often bigger than our mouths. We learned this lesson well during COVID-19, with more subdued smachot (celebrations) on more modest budgets, without sacrificing one iota from the joy and meaning of the day. Maybe this is a prophecy we needed to hear. Lastly, there is value in confronting the unpleasant prospect of an apocalyptic future in which we are the universal target of all and friend of none. It is at times like these that we learn the true strength of our nation; our most valuable lifeline is each other — if we can stop fighting each other long enough to notice.
Eldad and Meidad teach us the importance of heeding the prophecies we prefer to ignore. That which makes us uncomfortable also makes us stronger, giving us the physical, emotional and national fortitude to withstand whatever Hashem has in store for us.
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky serves Congregation Shaare Tefilla.