"Who Shall Give Us Meat to Eat?"

  • Rav Shimon Klein

Introduction

 

            Parashat Beha'alotekha begins a new period, during which a series of crises befalls the people, one crisis after the other. It begins with the complainers, continues with Kivrot Ha-Ta'ava, until we reach the story of Miriam, who is struck with leprosy in the wake of her talk about Moshe. Like a snowball that cannot be stopped, the Scriptural account continues with the story of the spies, followed by the great and complex crisis involving Korach and his company.

 

            Is it possible to characterize these crises? What lies behind them? What drives the people toward them? Is it possible to identify an educational or ideological approach in contending with these sins? This study will focus on the first two crises that pass over the people, and somewhat with the third. It will then be possible to look at the book of Bamidbar from above and learn something about the nature of the spiritual events that take place in it.

 

And When the People Complained

 

And when the people complained in the ears of God, the Lord heard it; and His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burned among them, and consumed those who were in the uttermost part of the camp. And the people cried out to Moshe, but Moshe prayed to the Lord, and the fire was quenched. And he called the name of the place Tav'era: because the fire of the Lord burned among them. (Bamidbar 11:1-3)

 

"And when the people" – the term am, people, expresses the dimension of natural life.[1] "Complained" (ke-mitonenim ra) – complaining is a psychological stance. Onen means "distressed." Ke-mitonenim indicates dissatisfaction without cause, as well as without defined content. "In the ears of God" – no account is given of God being addressed, and it stands to reason that the connection to "His ears" follows from His new presence in the camp. "The Lord heard it; and His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burned among them" – fire symbolizes anger. "And it consumed those who were in the outermost part of the camp" – a blow from without, rather than some internal process. God comes to them as a judge wielding the attribute of justice.

 

How do the people respond? "And the people cried out to Moshe" – like the anger of God, the people respond with a cry. There are raised voices on both sides. "But Moshe prayed to the Lord, and the fire was quenched" – Moshe, in contrast, adopts the position of prayer, taking responsibility for the situation. We have here two opposites, with Moshe serving as a bridge between them. It is interesting that Moshe turns to God only after the people cry out, but not before. He serves his people as a sort of mouthpiece and agent. "And he called the name of the place Tav'era, because the fire of the Lord burned among them." Who names the place? Is it the people? Moshe? God? The Scriptural text allows for all three possibilities, each one reporting in a different way about the position of justice, the fire that is the dominant element in this event.[2]

 

Who Shall Give Us Meat to Eat?

 

            The first crisis ends, and without delay Scripture invites us to the next crisis:

 

And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, “Who shall give us meat to eat?” (ibid. v. 4)

 

            A mixed multitude is comprised of individuals who gather together, without any unifying factor. A mixed multitude of this sort was found among the people of Israel, and they lusted for meat.[3] As opposed to the first episode, in which the event stemmed from the people as a whole, here we are dealing with a narrow circle of people, which broadens to include the rest of Israel, who begin to weep: "And the Children of Israel also wept again, and said, ‘Who shall give us meat to eat?’" The fact that they are called "the Children of Israel" and not "the people" indicates that this was a major crisis – on the level of identity and spirituality, and not merely on the natural human field. "Who shall give us meat to eat," they ask, pointing their fingers at the people's leaders. "No leader would do this," they think, as they point to the great distance between the people and its leadership.

 

We are familiar with a similar crisis in the past:

 

And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the Children of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and Aharon in the wilderness. And the Children of Israel said to them, “Would we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Shemot 16:1-3)

 

            This event took place when they ventured out into the wilderness (shortly after they crossed the Yam Suf – Shemot chapters 14-15), and it is accompanied by deep concern about the fate of the congregation. "Would we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we ate our fill of bread," they complain. "O that we would have died by the hand of God in Egypt, with the bounty that we had there – not here, in the wilderness into which you have taken us.” As in our parasha, two issues are intertwined in this event – leadership and food. The people compare God, in whose hand they had been in Egypt, to Moshe and Aharon, who took them out into the wilderness. In the hand of the former, there was plenty, while in the hands of the latter, there is hunger.

 

            Along with the similarity, there is also a great difference between the two events. In the first case, the people's worry is existential – "For you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger" (Shemot 16:3).[4] Now, a year has passed,[5] the manna falls from heaven in a regular manner, and there is no longer any worry about hunger. But the mixed multitude lust for food, and it spreads among the rest of the people. "Who shall give us meat to eat?" they complain. Who shall understand us, they ask. A new spirit blows through the camp, raising doubts: Will the existing leadership satisfy their desires?

 

But Now our Soul is Dried Away

 

            About a year has passed since the first event, when the people asked to be placed in the hands of God.

 

And the children of Israel said to them, “Would we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt…” (Shemot 16:3)

 

            Divine bread falling from heaven had been the answer to their wishes:

 

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will follow my Torah or not.” (ibid. v. 4)

 

And when the layer of dew was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a fine flaky substance, as fine as the hoar frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, “Man-hu (what is it?),” for they knew not what it was. And Moshe said to them, “This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” (ibid. vv. 14-15)

 

            Now, the answer that had satisfied them in the past, becomes the object of complaint in the present:

 

“We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.” And the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of bdellium. And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and boiled it in a pot, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was like the taste of oil cake. And when the dew fell upon the camp in the might, the manna fell upon it. (Bamidbar 11:4-9)

 

            Presented one alongside the other is the bounty that was theirs in Egypt and, in contrast, the food that now dries their soul: "But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes." A new thirst for life stirs up within them, and the manna no longer satisfies their desires. "And the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of bdellium" - subtle and abstract beauty.[6] "And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and boiled it in a pot, and made cakes of it" – the people go about, move from one place to the next, and prepare cakes from the manna. "And the taste of it was like the taste of oil cake"[7] – like oil that inundates a person and is difficult to absorb.[8]

 

Unlike the account in Shemot, when the people of Israel set off on their journey and ask to be put in the hand of God, and in this sense the manna answers their need, now the movement is reversed. The camp of Israel is already organized according to tribes, and life forces and passions have come back to life. The people have encountered "this world," and it has filled them with a different spirit.

 

God's Response

 

As stated, God responded to the first crisis with the attribute of justice. An elevated spiritual position dressed in fire set limits and boundaries to the camp. The playing field is on the edges, not an internal experience in the hearts of the people.

 

This attribute of governance continues now as well: "And the anger of the Lord burned greatly" (v. 10) – a harsh response on the part of God, and a more moderate one on the part of Moshe: "Moshe also was displeased." God alludes to Moshe that he should assume a position of responsibility. This he does, and at the same time he complains about the heavy burden that he must bear. This creates a new issue. The burden is too heavy to bear, and in response God joins seventy men of the elders of Israel to Moshe.

 

In what follows, the focus is now on the people's demand: Who shall give us meat to eat?

 

And say to the people, “Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, and you shall eat meat: for you have wept in the ears of the Lord, saying, ‘Who shall give us meat to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt.’ Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.” (ibid. v. 18)

 

In these verses, the people are asked to undergo spiritual sanctification, in the wake of which their wishes will be fulfilled. It would have been possible to stop here, with a fitting response to the crisis. But God continues:

 

“Not one day shall you eat, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome to you. Because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we come out of Egypt?’” (ibid. vv. 19-20)

 

The people will eat more and more meat, so much so that they will be repulsed by it. God inundates them with meat, with the intention that it should become loathsome to them. Already on the first day, the people gather the meat in a disproportionate manner, and for this they pay a heavy price:

 

And the people stood up all that day and all night and all the next day, and they gathered the quails. He that gathered least gathered a quantity of ten chomer; and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp. And while the meal was yet between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was inflamed against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague. And he called the name of that place Kivrot Ha-Ta'ava (Graves of Lust), because there they buried the people that lusted. (ibid. vv. 32-34)

 

Wrath and a very great plague – these are God's responses. These could have been anticipated, as clauses in a plan the essence of which was "no to meat," and perhaps no to the obvious educational act. These last steps join with the fire at Tav'era, which burned at the outermost parts of the camp, and together they become a principled method. Lust arises among the people, and God responds in a strong, cutting, and resolute manner. As part of the response, names are given to the places – Tav'era and Kivrot Ha-Ta'ava - which are meant to serve as a sort of deterrence to dissuade the people from returning to their evil ways.

 

Is this really a principled method? Has the idea of the goodness of man's soul been rejected? Or is this an instance of "Train a child in his own way" (Mishlei 22:6)?

 

The Individual Who Does Not Really Exist

 

            This type of governance includes a profound distinction with respect to the conceptual foundation underlying the book of Bamidbar. The subject of this book is the people, the camp of Israel that is invited to an elevated place. The verse states: "Take the sum of (lit., raise the heads of) all the congregation of the children of Israel," and with this introduction to the book, the children of Israel are invited to a position that is not self-evident. For this there must be the addition of God, who from now on is present in the camp. Another side of the same coin is the place of the individual. He is not the subject in this book, and his importance is in large measure in the context of his belonging to "the larger pictures" of both the people and the camp. Under this heading, when a spiritual movement begins to stir in an individual or in the congregation, it is measured in relation to their destiny and to the whole, and not to itself or its motivations. For example, the description of the people as "complainers" is a negation with respect to their destiny. Their description as lusting for meat is also a blemish and deficiency. The answer given to these is the fire of Tav'era or God's burning anger, which measures reality against its destiny, rather than its motivations.[9]

 

            An expression of the tension between destiny and its actualization is reflected in the relationship between the first ten chapters of the book and the second part (which ends in chapter 19). The first ten chapters describe the organization of the camp, the lifting of the heads of the people to an elevated place, a sort of utopia. The climax is reached in the verses: "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, ‘Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered; and let those who hate You flee before You.’ And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel’" (Bamidbar 10:35-36). These verses relate to the journey of the entire camp, but they note the ark, which serves as the principal aspect of that camp. The second part of the book, in which we hear of crises and more crises, stands in contrast, depicting reality and crises, as opposed to the utopia and vision presented in the first part of the book.

 

Because You Long to Eat Meat

 

            An illustration of the spiritual position that is reflected in the book of Bamidbar rises from a comparison between it and the book of Devarim, which includes a section which sees the eating of meat as a worthy act, a sort of broadening of a person's soul:

 

When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border, as He has promised you, and you shall say, “I will eat meat,” because you long to eat meat; you may eat meat to your heart's desire. If the place which the Lord your God has chosen to put His name there be too far from you, then you shall kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates to your heart's desire. (Devarim 12:20-21)

 

            Following Israel's entry into the land and after God's enlarging of their borders, the people's souls are liable to lust for meat. What is God's attitude about this? "You shall eat to your heart's desire," says the Torah, granting freedom to man's lusting. On the physical level, these verses describe a future situation, in the land of Israel after an enlargement of its borders. In contrast, the verses in the book of Bamidbar relate to the situation that existed prior to Israel's entry into the land, when the people dwelt in the wilderness. This difference is essential, and its ramifications are many, in this section and in others. One ramification relates to the question of the place of the individual. What place is there for his internal world, for his desires? As opposed to the wilderness, which does not raise the banner of the individual but only of the community and the congregation, in the book of Devarim,the individual seizes an important and significant place. The community and the congregation are built by him and founded on his existence.

 

            The passage in Devarim describes a process whose point of departure is the command: "You shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatever is right in his own eyes" (ibid. v. 8)[10] – a reference to the current situation in the wilderness. It then relates to the future situation in which God will choose one specific place, where He will rest His Shekhina, in "a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there" (ibid. v. 11). "Here" and "this day" at one extreme, or "right in his own eyes" as a type of personal connection to what is right in his eyes, and on the other side, "the place which the Lord your God shall choose," to which the people will make their pilgrimages after God chooses to cause His name to dwell in that specific place.[11]

 

            As a continuation of that process, an account is given of the eating of meat:

 

When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border, as He has promised you, and you shall say, “I will eat meat,” because you long to eat meat; you may eat meat to your heart's desire. If the place which the Lord your God has chosen to put His name there be too far from you, then you shall kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates to your heart's desire. (ibid. vv. 20-21)

 

            Man's borders are enlarged in fulfillment of a promise, and he says: "I will eat meat." This statement reflects his internal position, his lust to eat meat. This position contains his soul that is now far from the place of God. This distance does not create a deficiency, but an advantage – an autonomous position for man's soul, the lusting of his soul, or personal empowerment with respect to man's world and feelings.

 

This difference between the eating of meat "until it comes out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome to you" in the book of Bamidbar, and "you may eat meat to your heart's desire" in the book of Devarim constitutes the tip of the iceberg of the conceptual difference between the two books. The book of Bamidbar creates the separated and divine level of the people and the congregation, after which the book of Devarim expands the borders of what is and of what is permitted.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 



[1] The term am relates to the fabric of natural life common to all of humanity. In contrast, the term Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, relates to the identity and to the destiny assigned by Ya'akov by way of the angel and later by way of God.

[2] In the following midrash, the calling of the name is ascribed to God, and it contains a continuation of the warning: "'And he called the name of the place Tav'era, because the fire of the Lord burned among them.' He said to them: If you repent, it will be quenched, but if not, it will burn them, as it is stated: 'Because the fire of the Lord burned among them'" (Pesikta Zutrata [Lekach Tov], Bamidbar, Parashat Beha'alotekha, 100b).

[3] Their description in the singular portrays them as an entity, thus strengthening their presence as a sector of the population.

[4] This existential worry comes in the wake of a similar struggle with respect to water: "So Moshe brought Israel from the Yam Suf, and they went out to the wilderness of Shur; and they marched three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Mara, they could not drink of the water of Mara, for it was bitter; therefore the name of it was called Mara. And the people murmured against Moshe, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’" (Shemot 15:22-24).

[5] The first event took place on the fifteenth of the second month (ibid. 16:1), and the present event occurs slightly after they set out on their journey on the twentieth of the second month of the second year (ibid. 10:11).

[6] This is the way that the gemara expounds the words ke-zera gad, which is mentioned also in Shemot: "'And the manna was like gad [coriander] seed.' R. Assi said: [It was] round like a seed [of coriander] and white like a pearl. Our Rabbis taught: 'Gad' – that is, the manna resembled the seed of flax in its capsules. Others say: 'Gad'  - that is, it was like a tale, which draws the heart of man, even like water" (Yoma 75a). "Round like a seed" – of coriander (based on Avoda Zara 10b). "White like a pearl" – a color that expresses abstract spirituality. "The manna resembled the seed of flax in its capsules" – covered and concealed. "Like a tale" – internal, spiritual.

[7] The Rabbis expound the word leshad as alluding to a woman's breasts (shedayim): "'And the taste of it was as the taste of oil cake.' R. Abbahu said: [Do not read leshad (cake), but shad (breast)]: Just as the infant finds many flavors in the breast, so also did Israel find many tastes in the manna as long as they were eating it" (Yoma 75a). "Regarding Avraham it says: 'And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort your hearts' (Bereishit 18:5); so too the Omnipresent, blessed be He, gave them manna in the wilderness, as it is stated: 'And the people went about, and gathered it… oil cake.' Like that which issues from the breast. Just as the breast is essential for an infant and everything is secondary to it, so too the manna was essential for Israel, and all were secondary to them" (Tosefta Sota 4:3). This exposition bestows upon manna the nature of baby food, which is inappropriate in later periods of life.

[8] The commentators already noted the difference between the description of the manna in the book of Shemot – "like wafers made with honey" – which is construed as praise, and its description in the book of Devarim – "like the taste of oil cake" – which comes to explain why the people rejected it.

The conclusion that connects dew and manna – "And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it" – is interesting. Both are unconditional blessings from heaven.

[9] If the issue is the motivation, the distinction should be less judgmental and also less unequivocal.

[10] At an earlier stage in the section, the point of departure is idol worship "upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree" (v. 2), every person in his own place, entirely detached from his fellow. In contrast, the worship of the God of Israel is in one place – "the place which the Lord your God shall choose."

[11] In the middle, a process: "But when you traverse the Jordan" – when you physically enter the land. A transition from a situation in which you have no place to a position in which you have a place; "and dwell in the land which the Lord your God gives you to inherit" – dwelling followed by inheriting (dwelling is a mental process, a person's internal position; inheritance adds and synchronizes the space in which he is found); "and when He gives you rest from all your enemies round about" – after the dwelling and inheriting comes the stage of rest from the enemies. Not only connection to the space in which you are found, but reference to the space of your neighbors, of other nations. It begins with the non-interference on the part of the enemies, and later: "so that you dwell in safety" – peace and absence of threat, following a deep process between Israel and the nations of the world. The next stage is in great measure the climax – "then there shall be a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there." In the wake of historical and spiritual processes that the people of Israel undergo, God chooses a place, a center, which gives expression to the entire process.