The fourth book of the Bible, Numbers, began in high gear, with the various tribes situated around the Sanctuary - the center of the encampment - with each tribe proudly displaying its banner, its unique characteristic and contribution to the nation; a census is taken, the priests are prepared to serve the divine and the army is prepared for mobilization. From the time of the sin with the Golden Calf, the Children of Israel have been on a steadily upward climb, from the message of forgiveness on the first Yom Kippur to the construction of the Sanctuary, to the Book of Leviticus and to a nation poised for the conquest of the Promised Land, which would have ushered in complete redemption had the process continued on schedule.
Tragically, that was not to be; instead, we witness another steep decline, a precipitous deterioration which brings the nation from the heights of "a kingdom of priest-teachers" (Exodus 19:6), to the depths of "and the people began to naggingly complain" (Numbers 11:1) in this week's portion. And this was only the beginning of the end: What is to follow is the sin of the scouts, the various rebellions against Moses and the tragedy of that entire generation dying in the desert.
The disastrous descent begins with the "nagging complaints" (mit'onenim) in our portion, at first arousing a fiery anger from God which destroys the edge of the camp and leads to an "extremely severe plague" in which the complaining Israelites are buried in what Moses calls "the Graves of Craving" (Kivrat Hata'ava - Num. 11:31-35).
What is difficult to understand is the marked difference in God's reaction to the complaining Israelites here from His reaction to their complaints in the Book of Exodus. After all, the Israelites were never "easy customers"; even after having witnessed the great wonders of the Ten Plagues, even after the mind-blowing splitting of the Reed (Red) Sea, when - only three days afterward - they only find "bitter" waters to drink, "the people complained against Moses" (Ex. 15:24). God immediately - and without comment - provides Moses with the bark from a special tree which sweetens the waters.
And then again, 30 days after the Exodus, upon their arrival at the Sin desert, they complain bitterly because they have no food: "If only we had died by God's hand in Egypt... you had to bring us out to this desert to kill the entire community by starvation" (Ex. 16:1-3). God immediately - and without comment - provides manna. And finally, when they leave the Sin desert and encamp in Rephidim, they again quarrel with Moses over their lack of water, and God tells Moses to strike a large boulder at Horeb with the same staff he had used to strike the Nile River and turn it into blood; this time water would (and did) come out of the rock (Ex. 17:1-7). And although Moses names this place "Testing and Strife" (Masa u'Meriva), what follows is the successful war against Amalek, won with the divine response to Moses' upraised hands in prayer.
How different is God's reaction to the complaints less than a year later (Num. 1:1), when a fire consumes the edge of the camp and a plague results in mass deaths.
Why the change?
Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, in his illuminating study Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (Hebrew, Tzir V'Tzon), suggests that the requests and complaints in Exodus were for the necessities of life - water and bread. Although the Israelites should have had greater faith, one can hardly fault them for desiring their existential needs.
In this portion, Beha'alotcha, however, they are not complaining about scarcity of water; they are complaining abut the lack of variety in the menu. The text even introduces the subject by stating that the nation was kvetching (in Hebrew, the strange word mit'onenim, rather than the usual mitlonenim for complaining) evilly in the ears of God - without even mentioning what they were complaining about (Num. 11:1). And for this unspecified complaint, God's fire flares out. After this punishment, the nation cries out: "Who will give us meat to eat?" and then continues with "We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, and the cucumbers and melons, and the leeks, and the onions and the garlic; our spirits are dried up with nothing but manna before our eyes" (11:4-6).
What do they want - meat or fish or melons or garlic?
God's response is also strange; He tells Moses to appoint 70 elders (11:16), and sends the Israelites quail to eat. They ask for meat and God first gives them rabbis! And while they are eating the quail, they are smitten by plague. Why are they complaining, and why is God so angry? And if indeed He is disappointed, even upset, by their finicky desires, why give in to their cravings, and why send them rabbis?
Herein lies the essential difference between the complaints in Exodus and the complaints in Numbers. In Exodus the nation had a clear goal: It was committed to the mission of becoming a kingdom of priest-teachers and a sacred nation, and was anxiously anticipating that mission, a God-given doctrine of compassionate righteousness and moral justice which they must impart to the world. To fulfill their mission they had to live, and so they (legitimately) requested water and bread.
One year later, in Numbers, they had already received the Torah. And they were complaining, kvetching, without having specific complaints, and they were craving - all sorts of things - from meat to garlic. God understood that if they were still inspired by their mission, if they remained grateful for their freedom and the opportunity it would afford them to forge a committed and idealistic nation, they would not be in need of watermelons and leeks. The Netziv suggests that the Hebrew mit'onenim comes from anna, whither and thither - a nation that lost its compass was searching for meaning. Having achieved and received the Torah, the once sought-after object lost its appeal. And so they substituted nonsense cravings. No wonder God was disappointed and angry.
Perhaps 70 more rabbis would be able to restore their direction for them!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.