In this Midrashic Monologue, we suggest an answer to the question, “Who were the 70 elders who accompanied Moses up Mount Sinai?” We also explore the power of our Torah’s central figure celebrating the love between two men and even lifting up their bond as one of their defining strengths. Our purpose in creating these Midrashic Monologues is to give a voice to the voiceless, and with that in mind, we bring you the story of Assir and Zimmah.
When Moses appeared in the doorway of our tent, my beloved and I rushed to welcome him. Neither of us were expecting him, but we tried to keep our surprise off our faces as we ushered him to our small table and offered him food and cool water.
Moses smiled at us, thanking us for our hospitality and asking that we sit with him. As he ate and drank, the three of us spoke of unimportant things- the children’s latest discoveries in the desert, the dyes that we planned to make after the sheep had been sheared. The presence of our cousin, Moses, was unexpected, but the conversation felt easy as it so often does when one speaks with family.
After a few moments, Moses paused, seemingly to gather his thoughts, and then said, “Zimmah, Assir, I was surprised not to see you at this morning’s gathering of the elders. Our group had much to discuss and quite a bit to plan. Your absence was felt. I came today to make sure that you understood just how important it is to fulfill the responsibilities that go along with being a member of our leadership.”
I was shocked by Moses’ words and replied quickly, “What do you mean? We were told last week that others had been chosen in our place.” Seeing Moses’ confusion, Assir continued, “The judge that you appointed for our clan told us that we did not meet the requirements to be counted among the seventy elders who will accompany you tomorrow. Moses, he told us that the instructions you had received from God prohibited the inclusion of people who are bound by a love like ours.”
Moses held up a hand to stop Assir’s words; surprise and anger were visible on his face. “Aaron and I included your names among those who should be asked before any others! How could this have happened?!”
I saw my own relief reflected on Assir’s face. Moses must have seen it as well because he sighed deeply, and I caught a glimpse of the lonely man who had escaped from the Pharaoh’s palace only to flee into the wilderness in fear. After a moment, Moses began to speak, slowly and carefully, “Cousins, I am so sorry. You must have thought that I was being so cruel- judging your love as unworthy and then sending that judgement through an intermediary in such an impersonal way. Please believe me when I tell you that this was not my intention or my expectation. I have told you often how much I admire you both, how much I am inspired by your love for one another. It pains me to think that your faith in me or in God was shaken or tested by this situation.”
I leaned over the table, reaching out for Moses’ hand and gripping it with strength. “Assir and I are glad to hear you say this, Moses. Thank you for coming here today.”
Moses sighed again, looking both relieved and resolute. “Will you come with me? I would like to make this right.”
Assir and I both nodded, following him as he left our tent and walked purposefully toward the tent of his uncle, Hebron, who he had so recently appointed as the judge of our clan. Our trio approached the group of people sitting outside of Hebron’s tent, listening to him as he offered judgement and counsel.
When the people saw Moses striding towards them, they stood and made a path for him. Assir and I shared a small smile- communicating without words as we so often did- both of us amused that our cousin’s presence was apparently strong enough to split both water and humanity. We followed in Moses’ wake until we stood flanking him in front of a surprised looking Hebron.
The judge stood quickly and said, “Moses, nephew, what are you doing here? This morning you told all of us that you would spend the day preparing for tomorrow’s journey. Did something happen that took you away from that work?”
Moses took a deep breath and stared intently at his uncle, “You are correct, Hebron. There is still much to do, but I could not focus on my preparation until I had spoken with Zimmah and Assir. Their absence from this morning’s meeting was so surprising that I worried for their health and went to see them as quickly as I could.”
I watched as beads of sweat appeared on Hebron’s brow, his discomfort obvious to all around us.
Moses continued, “Uncle, I must tell you that I have learned something very distressing. Zimmah and Assir have shared with me that you told them that they were unable to take their places among the elders of Israel. I was shocked to hear this because I had specifically told you that I wanted them to accompany me on our journey to God. Hebron, can you explain what has happened?”
Hebron looked anxiously at my beloved and at me and then said, “Moses, I was just trying to protect you and our people. We were all so relieved when you appointed judges to help you. I watched as you became more and more exhausted by the disputes of our people. I was proud to see that you trusted me and other leaders to make decisions for our tribes.
“When you included Zimmah and Assir among those whom you wanted me to recruit, I assumed that you were not aware of the way that that they live their lives. You had just spent hours telling the people how to keep themselves pure enough to even approach the base of the mountain. Zimmah and Assir are bound by a love outside of our understanding, and I was afraid of what their inclusion would mean for them and for our people. It seemed too dangerous a choice, and so I used the authority that you invested in me to protect our people. I replaced them with others that I know to be worthy.”
I stepped closer to Assir and reached out for his hand. Both of us had heard opinions like Hebron’s before, and while we were happy with our lives, words like those still had the power to cause us pain.
Moses sighed, nodded at his uncle, and then turned to face the group that had continued to grow since his arrival.
“It seems that there has been some confusion,” Moses said. “Apparently, some of my judges think that my eyes and ears have failed me.” He glanced back at Hebron before returning his gaze to the ever-growing group. “That is the only explanation that I can think of for my uncle’s disastrous decision.”
Moses smiled then, facing Assir and me as he said, “Every look that the two of you share is filled with the power of your bond. Only a blind man would have missed the way you lean toward one another when confronted with uncertainty or danger. And only a deaf man would have been unable to hear the beautiful way your voices ring together in laughter and song.”
When Moses turned back to speak directly to the people gathered around us, his words seemed to vibrate with power. He was no longer just our cousin; in that moment, he was the prophet of God.
“I understand that there are those among our people who would not honor the bond- the love- that ties Assir and Zimmah’s hearts to one another, but I am not one of them. I am a man who speaks with God. I have been a prince of Egypt, a destitute fugitive, and the son-in-law of a foreign priest. I have watched a bush be engulfed in fire yet never be consumed. I have channeled power that was mighty enough to split a sea. My understanding of this world is far more expansive than it once was.”
He turned to look at Hebron, “Uncle, when I charged you with the recruitment of these men, it was with the full knowledge of the love that they share. God commanded me to bring a company of exemplary leaders on my journey, and Aaron and I crafted a list of people whose hearts and deeds have made them worthy of inclusion. Assir and Zimmah met all of our requirements easily.”
Moses turned back to us. I lifted my head high as he placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Zimmah, I have seen you go out of your way to provide for others, bringing food to the widows surrounded by children, adding the belongings of the aged to your own pack so that they can travel more easily. You have frequently demonstrated your impressive faith.”
Moses lifted his other hand to my beloved’s shoulder, standing as a link between us as he added, “Assir, you lifted your voice and your feet as our people celebrated God’s saving power after the sea was split for us. Your dancing and singing brought light and laughter to all who saw you. I know that this is the way you walk through the world, and I have seen you share your joy and light with everyone you encounter. You are a man who lives with honor and compassion.”
I continued to hold Assir’s hand as Moses stepped from us to address our kinspeople. “When God called me to service, I responded that I was not enough- not good enough, not honorable enough, not enough of the kind of man God needed me to be. In that moment, in the face of my doubt, God reassured me of my worth and challenged me to lead.
“Today, I want to make sure that everyone understands that Assir and Zimmah are more than enough- for God and for me. Their love brings holiness to their lives and to our people. They live honorably, believe deeply, and love courageously. They are men who I would be proud to have with me as I ascend God’s mountain.
“Cousins, Assir and Zimmah, I challenge you as God challenged me. Join me. Lead our people. Walk with God.”
Assir squeezed my hand, telling me silently that I should be the one to respond. I straightened my shoulders, and looked directly into Moses’ eyes. “We will answer as you did, Moses. We will embrace the opportunity that we have been given. We will accompany you as you follow God’s path. We will be with you as you lead our people.”
Moses nodded and smiled at us. “Thank you, my cousins, for your bravery and your dedication. I will leave you to prepare for our journey. Our group will begin the climb when the sun rises.”
Moses embraced both of us, and we offered him our thanks and our promise that we would see him before first light.
As he turned to leave, Moses paused and spoke to Hebron so quietly that no one else but Assir and I were able to hear their conversation. “Uncle, remember that the God that we worship exists beyond all classifications and divisions. Our God created the entire world and filled it with wondrous and diverse creatures. Take care not to assign the limitations of your own mind to our God who is beyond such weakness.”
Hebron looked shaken and whispered to the three of us, “Of course, Moses. I ask forgiveness from you and from Assir and Zimmah, your chosen leaders, for my mistake. I will strive to do and to be better.”
Moses nodded to him, offered us one last smile, and encouraged us to begin our preparations. As Assir and I began walking to our tent, I glanced back at Moses, unsurprised to see him still standing amongst his people. I caught his eye, placed my hand over my heart, and smiled my thanks and love. He returned my smile and mirrored my gesture.
My beloved and I returned to our home and began gathering what we would need for our journey. As evening fell, I heard something outside of our tent and went to investigate. When I opened the tent flap, I was surprised to see Hebron standing in the near-darkness. I stepped back, motioning for him to come inside.
He shuffled into our space looking awkward. The three of us stood in silence for a long moment until Hebron spoke, the words seeming to burst from within him, “I brought you figs and dates. I thought that they would sustain you on your journey tomorrow.”
Assir stepped forward to take the bundles from him, saying simply, “Thank you. That was kind.”
Hebron nodded and began walking toward the entrance of the tent. Just as he was about to cross its threshold, he turned back to us, his eyes on the floor. “Moses and I spoke after you left, and I will not be joining you on God’s mountain. I have more work to do in order to be worthy of such a reward. Assir, Zimmah, I do not know the words that will convince you that I am sorry for the mistakes that I have made. I assumed that God is like me, instead of understanding that I should be like God. I have been worshipping an idol that I crafted from my own prejudices. I am grateful that Moses acted as our ancestor Abraham once did, smashing the false gods that I had created in my mind and in my heart. I will not ask you to forgive me, but I will promise you that from this moment on the judgements that I render and the counsel that I give will be informed by the humility that my nephew has instilled within me today.”
Before Assir or I could respond, Hebron slipped from the tent and vanished into the night.
My beloved and I wrapped our arms around one another, holding and strengthening each other in an embrace informed by years of love and shared experiences.
After many moments, I looked into my beloved's eyes and asked, “Assir, what will you say to God when we reach the mountain’s peak tomorrow?”
He smiled and replied, “ I will look to the heavens and proclaim, ‘Thank you, God of our ancestors, for guiding me to the one whom I love so dearly. It often feels as if You crafted us as one creature and then cleaved us down the middle. His heart is the other half of mine. I would be living an incomplete life if You had not led us to one another. I offer You my unending gratitude for making us who we are and for giving us the opportunity to love one another.”
I pulled him close, kissed him, and then added the only word missing from his prayer, “Amen.”