We read in Parashat Beha’alotekha of Benei Yisrael’s demand for meat after journeying from Mount Sinai, and Moshe’s cries to God express his despair in leading the people who were making such demands. God responded by instructing Moshe to appoint a body of seventy leaders to assist him, and by informing Moshe that He would be providing the people with so much meat that they would be repulsed by it. Moshe replied in disbelief, noting the nation’s large size, and asking, “Can enough sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them to suffice for them? If all the fish in the sea would be drawn for them – would this suffice for them?” (11:22).
Rashi cites from the Tosefta (Sota 6:4) three explanations of Moshe’s question. Rabbi Akiva accepted the plain, straightforward reading, that Moshe actually doubted God’s ability to provide the quantity of meat needed to feed all of Benei Yisrael to satiation, and that Moshe sinned by expressing such doubts. Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Akiva’s student, pointed to Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation as one of the small number of instances where Rabbi Akiva offered an explanation that Rabbi Shimon felt compelled to reject. It is inconceivable, Rabbi Shimon argued, that Moshe – who, later in this parasha, is called God’s most “trustworthy” servant (12:7) – doubted God’s ability to supply a large quantity of meat for Benei Yisrael. Rabbi Shimon therefore explained that God had informed Moshe of His plan to kill those people who inappropriately craved meat (as we read later – 11:33), and Moshe’s question was why God would provide this large amount of meat just to kill the people afterward. God’s response, as Rabbi Shimon understood it, was that He needed to grant the people’s request despite His plan to kill them afterward in order to prevent people from claiming that He was incapable of supplying meat.
The third interpretation cited by Rashi is that of Rabban Gamliel, who explained that Moshe did not doubt God’s ability to provide an unlimited supply of meat, but noted that the nation did not actually desire meat. They were looking for a reason to complain and protest, and so no amount of meat would end their grumblings. This view is accepted by Seforno, who explains, “How would it suffice to eliminate their complaints, as they are asking for meat only in order to test [God]…” Since God does not interfere with free will, Seforno writes, Moshe said that there was no possibility of God ending their complaints, which did not result from any actual discontent but rather out of a desire to rebel.
Another interpretation of this verse is suggested by the Rashbam, who explains that Moshe here was making an inquiry, not expressing disbelief or questioning God. He was simply asking how God planned on providing such a large supply of food for the people, without doubting His ability to do so.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, offers a simple explanation of Moshe’s response to God, noting that people who crave unnecessary luxuries are never satisfied. God had already supplied Benei Yisrael with miraculous manna to eat and a miraculous well which provided water to drink. Their basic needs were cared for, but they protested and demanded more. When people crave comforts and amenities, viewing them as a necessity, as opposed to a luxury, they will never feel satisfied. No matter what they have, they will always crave and demand more. And thus Moshe turned to God and bemoaned the fact that although God is certainly capable of providing the people with an unlimited supply of meat and fish, no matter what He would give them would be insufficient, because, alas, they could never be satisfied.