The Torah in Parashat Behaalotekha tells the somewhat mysterious story of Eldad and Meidad, two men who were among the seventy figures selected by Moshe to assume leadership roles in the nation. As God had commanded, Moshe brought the designated men outside the camp, to his tent, where they were endowed with prophetic capabilities (11:25). For some reason, however, Eldad and Meidad decided to remain in the camp, and did not join the others in Moshe’s tent. Nevertheless, since they were among those designated as leaders, they received prophecy, and began prophesying inside the camp. Word of Eldad and Meidad’s prophecy came to Moshe, whereupon his disciple, Yehoshua, reacted angrily, telling Moshe, “Kela’eim” – that they should be jailed (11:28). Moshe rebuffed Yehoshua’s quick condemnation of Eldad and Meidad, expressing his desire to see all of Benei Yisrael reach the level of prophets (11:29).
Commenting on Yehoshua’s proposal of “kela’eim,” Rashi cites a Midrashic reading of this word from the Gemara (Sanhedrin 17a): “Cast upon them the needs of the public, and they will automatically be gone.” The Gemara associates the word “kela’eim” with the Hebrew word for “destruction,” and thus explains that Yehoshua was advising Moshe to ruin Eldad and Meidad’s lives by forcing them into public service.
The Gemara’s comment likely serves as a sober, perhaps even cynical, warning to those pursuing a career in leadership about the harsh realities of life as a public servant. The numerous demands imposed by the leader’s constituents, and the relentless criticism, scrutiny and suspicion to which he is subjected, can bring the leader aggravation instead of fulfillment, to the point of “destroying” him. (We will not deal here with the obvious question of why Yehoshua suggested imposing upon Eldad and Meidad leadership roles, when this was precisely what already happened, as they were chosen as two of the seventy elders.)
The Gemara’s comment must be understood in conjunction with a different perspective on public service expressed elsewhere. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 25:1) writes that if a person seeks atonement for a capital offense, which is punishable by death, he should either increase the amount of his Torah study, or, if not, “he should go and become a leader over the community.” Here, the Midrash explicitly encourages pursuing roles in community leadership in order to secure a source of merit with which to achieve atonement. Of course, this remark does not contradict the Gemara’s comment cited earlier, warning about the hardships of such roles. The Gemara clearly does not wish to discourage all worthy candidates from pursuing leadership, but rather urges them to be aware of the challenges that it entails, and not to expect only fame and respect.
Additionally, however, some have noted another important difference between the Gemara’s remark and that of the Midrash. The Midrash encourages a person to find for himself a leadership position, whereas the Gemara tells of Yehoshua’s suggestion that such a position be imposed upon Eldad and Meidad. A crucial difference exists between a person who finds for himself a position that suits his skills, interests and character, and an undesirable position that is imposed upon somebody against his will. The latter situation can, indeed, break a person. Undertaking demanding tasks for which one is ill-suited and in which he has no interest can be very difficult and frustrating. Of course, we all find ourselves in situations that require filling roles for which we find ourselves ill-equipped, and we have no choice but to fill them to the best of our ability. However, the Gemara perhaps warns us of the consequences of undertaking challenges and responsibilities for which we are not suited, and that are not appropriate for us. While at times circumstances compel us to undertake such challenges and responsibilities, we are urged before voluntarily entering such a situation to carefully consider whether we are indeed suited for the tasks entailed, to ensure that they provide us with joy and fulfillment, and not only with grief and anguish.