By Shlomo Riskin
“The nation was ‘kvetching’ evilly in the ears of the Lord, and the Lord heard, and His anger inflamed.” [Num. 11:1]
Why is there a marked difference between God’s reaction to the complaints recorded here in the Book of Numbers compared to His reaction to the Israelites’ complaints in the Book of Exodus? After all, merely three days after the splitting of the sea, they found only “bitter” waters to drink [Ex. 15:24]. God immediately – and without comment – provides Moses with the bark of a special tree that sweetens the waters.
Then, only thirty days after the exodus, upon their arrival at the Tzin Desert, they complain because they have no food [ibid., 16:1-3]. God immediately – and without comment – provides the manna.
And finally, when they encamp in Rephidim, they again quarrel with Moses over their lack of water, God tells Moses to strike a large boulder at Horev with the same staff used to strike the Nile River and turn it into blood; this time water would flow from the rock [ibid., 17:1–7]!
And although Moses names this place “Testing and Strife” (Masa u’Meriva), what immediately follows is the successful war against Amalek, won for the Israelites by the Divine response to Moses’ hands upraised in prayer to God.
How different is God’s reaction to the similar complaints only one year later [see Num. 1:1], when a fire consumes the edge of the camp and a plague results in mass graves. Why the change?
Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein suggests that it is because the requests and complaints in Exodus were for the basic 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 our portion, Beha’alotcha, however, they complain not about the scarcity of water, but about the lack of variety in the menu! The verse even introduces the subject by stating that the nation was kvetching evilly in the ears of God – without even mentioning what they were complaining about [Num. 11:1]. And it is for this unspecified complaint that God’s fire flares.
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 the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; our spirits are dried up with nothing but manna before our eyes” [ibid., v. 4-6]. What do they want – meat, or fish, or melons, or garlic?! All of the above for the sake of variety? That is what it seems to be!
God’s response is also curious; He tells Moses to appoint seventy elders [ibid., v. 16], and sends the Israelites quails to eat. They ask for meat and God gives them rabbis!? And while they eat the quail, they are smitten by the severe 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 the seventy elders?
Herein lies the essential difference between the complaints in Exodus and Numbers. In Exodus, the nation had a clear goal; they were committed to the mission of becoming a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation, and were anxiously anticipating the content of that mission, a God-given doctrine of compassionate righteousness and moral justice which they must impart to the world.
In order to receive and fulfill their mission they had to live, and so they (legitimately) requested water and bread, survival food. If they did not survive, they would certainly not be able to redeem.
One year later, in Numbers, they had already received the Torah. And, since their necessities were provided for, they were complaining, kvetching, without having substantive issues about which to complain. And they had various gourmet cravings, from meat to garlic.
God understood that had they still been inspired by their mission, had 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, foods that they themselves had never even tasted. They were really searching for a lost ideal, for their earlier inspiration of becoming a holy nation and kingdom of kohen-teachers.
No wonder God was disappointed and angry. And so he sent them the quails, knowing that once they received it, they would cease craving for it, just as once they gained their freedom from Egyptian servitude they took their freedom for granted, and once they received the Torah at Sinai, the Torah lost its allure.
The Almighty therefore felt that it would be necessary for many religious role models – seventy wise and sensitive men – to hopefully become the adjutant generals under Moses, who would personally reach out to large numbers of Jews and re-charge their batteries as members of a holy nation and a kingdom of kohen-teachers!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.