We read in Parashat Beha’alotekha of Benei Yisrael’s complaints to Moshe about the lack of the food in the wilderness. They demanded that they be given meat, fondly recalled the variety of foods that were available to them in Egypt, and expressed their disdain for the manna which they were fed. God severely punished the people, killing those who complained and demanded meat.
Earlier this week, we mentioned the view in the Gemara (Yoma 75a) that the people complained not about the limited food supply, but rather about the Torah’s restrictions of arayot – forbidden marital relationships. According to this view, the people protested the prohibitions that were added at the time of Matan Torah limiting options of whom one may marry. Although Benei Yisrael faithfully observed even beforehand the restrictions imposed by the Noachide laws upon all mankind, they resented the additional restrictions which went into effect when the Torah was given.
The question arises as to why this view would suggest such a strained, far-fetched reading of the text. It is abundantly clear from the verses that the people complained about food. They cried, “Who will feed us meat?” (11:4), and reminisced about the fish and vegetables they enjoyed in Egypt, even specifying the particular delicacies (such as onion and garlic – 11:5). Why would anyone suggest that the people were in truth complaining about the Torah’s supposedly restrictive sexual code?
One possibility we might consider is that this view in the Gemara seeks to answer the question of why the people acted and spoke with such panic and desperation. The Torah tells that the people did not merely complain, but wept: “Moshe heard the people crying by family…” (11:10). Ibn Ezra explains this to mean that families gathered to weep “as they would do when crying over a deceased [loved one].” The people went into a state of mourning over their conditions in the desert, which, they must have known, were only temporary. They were to have entered the Land of Israel and begun cultivating the fertile land in a matter of just weeks, and yet they lamented the lack of a variety in their diet in the interim period. It was to explain this drastic behavior, perhaps, that one view in the Gemara understood that the people were not simply complaining about food. According to this opinion, the austere conditions in the desert indicated to the people that God did not want them to enjoy the delights of the world. They saw the lack of a selection of food not as a temporary condition necessitated by the journey through the desert to the Land of Israel, but rather as God’s vision and prescription for their lives of service to Him. They pointed to the Torah’s restrictions on marriage as an indication that God wants them to suffer, allegedly proving that the austerity of their existence in the desert was not temporary, but the way it was always going to be. And so they panicked, and went into a state of mourning.
This might explain the Midrash’s famous comment (cited by the Ramban, 10:35; and Tosafot, Shabbat 116a) that Benei Yisrael journeyed from Mount Sinai “joyfully, like a child running away from school,” exclaiming, “Lest He give us more commands.” This description frames for us the subsequent events – the people’s complaints against Moshe and God – by revealing to us the people’s mindset at this time. They pictured God in their minds not as a loving, compassionate father who warmly and tenderly cared for them and forged a special relationship with them, but rather as a strict, harsh ruler who had an interest in making them miserable. This image of God led them to assume that both His commands and their limited food options in the desert were indications of His contempt for them. And so they wept and mourned, having concluded that they were condemned to misery and deprivation, failing to trust that God forged a covenant with them for their benefit, and not, Heaven forbid, the opposite.