In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, we encounter the nation on its journey from Egypt – complaining.
At first glance, this seems odd. The people of Israel was enslaved in Egypt. Then it experienced manifest miracles before and after the Exodus. After that, it experienced the revelation on Mount Sinai – a one-time Divine revelation in front of the entire nation at which it received the Torah. And after all that – they’re still complaining? The truth is, as some of the commentators explain, it is not that odd. A nation enslaved for centuries does not lose its slave mentality that quickly. We have no reason to expect that only one year after its liberation, we would encounter a nation that feels free at its core.
In order to be liberated from its emotional slavery, it needs to undergo a long process. Indeed, it was only after 40 years that the nation was ready to enter the Promised Land – the Land of Israel.
Let’s go back. We are now at the stage of complaints.
The nation complains about not having enough food.
The people are sick of wandering in the desert and eating the manna – the food that comes down from heaven every day at dawn. They want beef.
Now, even the dark days of slavery in Egypt are looking good, and they say, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.”
After Moses hears the complaint, he turns to God, who promises him beef. Moses’s response is the one we would have least expected. He answers God this way: “Six-hundred-thousand people on foot are the people in whose midst I am, and you say, ‘I will give them beef, and they will eat it for a full month’? If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them, would it suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?” (Numbers 11, 21-22).
It seems incomprehensible to us as we read this.
Could it be that Moses, the man the Torah and prophets refer to as a “man of God,” the man who was privileged to go up to Mount Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments – could it be that he is doubting God’s ability to get meat for the nation somehow? Actually, this is how it seems from God’s answer to Moshe: “Is my power limited? Now you will see if my word comes true for you or not!” (ibid. 11, 23).
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1106), quotes a dispute about how to understand Moses’s words. One of the explanations quotes Rabbi Gamliel: Moses said, It is impossible to settle the people’s complaint, since they are only looking for a pretext. You cannot satisfy them, and in the end they will find fault in you. If you give them meat, they will say, “We asked for mutton”; if you give them mutton, they will say, “We asked for beef” or “We asked for venison or fowl” or “We asked for fish and locusts.”
Meaning, Moses recognized what was behind the nation’s complaints. It was not a lack of meat but a complaining character, the kind that can never be satisfied with what exists and only sees what is lacking.
If so, claimed Moses, there is no point in giving them meat, since then they will just complain about wanting fish; and if they get that, they will complain about wanting fowl, and so on.
If that is the case, what can be done? There is no choice but to change the nation’s character. This is actually what Moses is claiming. Maybe God refuses to accept what he is saying, not because Moses is wrong in his observation, but because God provides man with freedom of choice and does not intervene and change people’s characters.
So what is the solution that God proposes? Even though the complaining character will not change, the nation will have better spiritual conditions, of a greater quality, so that it will be able to deal with its character and change the way it functions.
We then continue to read about an interesting event: Moses our Master gathers 70 of the nation’s elders, God spreads over them a spirit of holiness, and they become prophets.
That is the solution! Adding holiness to the nation, so that it has the ability to cope with its own stubborn and complaining character is the solution.
Seemingly, this act works in accordance with the famous saying “A little bit of light banishes a lot of darkness.”
Instead of banishing the darkness, God lights a flame in our hearts and provides mankind with the strength to move forward and change.
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