“You’re not special.” That’s what high school teacher David McCullough, Jr. told students two years ago in a commencement speech at a Wellesley High School outside of Boston. He thought his audience was the graduating class, but the electronic world was eavesdropping. The 12-minute speech went viral. Suddenly he received emails from around the world, and networks wanted interviews. McCullough’s speech startled many because his message to the students was: “You’re not special.” He criticized well-meaning but micro-managing parents for the intense pressure they put on teenagers to excel. He argued that students are so afraid of failure that they miss the opportunity to make and learn from mistakes, and ultimately could miss out on having a fulfilling, happy life. McCullough recently developed his speech into a book titled, “You Are Not Special: …And other Encouragements.”
He says that if kids hear that they are more important than others and deserving of accolades, that puts a lot of pressure on them. Far too many kids are absorbing the message that the purpose of the endeavor is praise—pleasing Mommy or Daddy, for example. They learn that the purpose of activities is the accolades they will receive rather than the pleasure of doing something.
David McCullough, Jr.’s insight could have been inspired by an episode in this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotekha. We are introduced to two characters, Eldad and Medad, about whom, we are told, vayitnabu ba-mahane, they prophesied in the camp. What led to this, and what happened as a result? In chapter 11, Moses complains to God that he can’t bear the weight of the people by himself, so God commands him to appoint 70 elders to enter the Tent of Meeting to assist him in the official leadership of the people.
The Torah then reports the following: Moshe gathered 70 of the people’s elders and stationed them around the tent. Then God came in a cloud and spoke to Moses, drawing upon the spirit that was on him and putting it upon the 70 elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but did not continue. It turns out that these seventy elders were not so special, after all. Two men, Eldad and Medad had remained in the camp; yet the spirit rested upon them– they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the tent–and they prophesied in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses saying, ‘Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!’ And Joshua…spoke up and said, ‘My lord, Moses, restrain them!’ Joshua believes that prophecy is reserved for special people, and others dare not encroach on this endeavor. But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous on my account? If only all of the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!’
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) records two opinions interpreting what happened. The first says that essentially, Eldad and Medad missed the cut. God commanded Moses to choose 70 elders. Moses cannot figure out how to select the men in a fair and representative way. If he picks five from each of the twelve tribes, he will have only 60. If he picks 6 from each tribe, he will have 72–too many, for when God says 70, it means 70. If he picks five from some tribes and six from others, he will foment jealousy and rivalry among the tribes. So he picked six from each tribe and put 72 pieces of paper in a ballot box. On 70 of them he wrote Elder, and two he left blank. Eldad and Medad were the random two who picked the blank ballots and did not make the cut.
A second view in the Talmud is that all 72 were chosen, but that Eldad and Medad did not feel worthy of the task and stayed behind. God rewarded them for their humility by granting them permanent prophetic abilities, while the prophetic abilities of the 70 elders soon came to an end.
These two interpretations both reflect important statements of Rabbinic values about leadership. The first emphasizes the point that the people must feel invested in the system in order for it to work. They need to feel represented. They need to be engaged in the process of determining their destiny.
The second interpretation emphasizes the value of humility in leadership. Eldad and Medad, because of their modesty, are rewarded with increased spiritual access to the divine presence. In the midrash, they emulate the modesty that Moses displays in the Biblical text itself. Moses is not afraid of other Israelites engaging in prophecy, even if they are not official leaders. Rather, he embraces such an opportunity. Moses knows that despite his spiritual gifts, there are other Israelites with unique gifts who can help bring God’s presence into their midst. As far as our lives are concerned, every one of us has within us a spark of the divine, and it is up to each of us to harness it for the benefit of the community.
The message of the Torah portion is that bringing God’s presence into the community requires a team effort. No Jew in our history, not even Moshe Rabbeinu, could ever claim a monopoly on holiness and access to God’s presence. Eldad and Medad’s prophecy and Moses’s deference to them, show that all of us have the potential to be touched by God. In other words, the seventy elders were not special. Eldad and Medad were also capable of prophecy. If they can experience closeness to God so intensely, then the rest of us can as well.
The episode of Eldad and Medad is a paradigm that each one of us has the potential to carry within us God’s spirit. They call upon us to engage in meaningful Jewish experiences not to bring us accolades but because we will feel closer to the divine in our midst.
Let me close with a prayer that Parashat Behaalotekha will inspire each of us to search for that divine spark within ourselves and that we may have the strength and courage to share that spark with our friends, neighbors and loved ones that will in turn bring about tikkun olam, repair of our world.