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The rabble population amongst the Israelites craved food… 'Who will give us meat? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt - free … Now our life is dry; only manna.' But the manna was like coriander seed… (11:4-7), and its taste was like wafers made with honey (Ex. 16:31)
So the parasha describes the well-know scene of Moses facing the grumbling Israelites. Never being quite satisfied is part of human nature. You might go to sleep at night in the most comfortable bed. Yet in twenty minutes later, you turn over and want to lie on the other side. Your present position just before was sheer bliss. But that very spot is uncomfortable enough for the grand effort of turning over. And a much-enjoyed potion of expertly-prepared duck and orange sauce at the smartest restaurant in town will look rather disappointing if you return next evening and are told that it's the only dish left on the menu. 'Not that duck again!'
What seems unusual is the way the Israelites substantiated their desire for meat. 'We remember the fish we ate in Egypt - free. With the cucumbers, the water-melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic' (11:5).
They weren't actually nostalgic for meat. Perhaps as slaves they never got their hands on any. The food they actually got was the sort of thing the masters might throw at their slaves. Indeed, we today know that some fish (most notably the Nile carp, and the Phagrus fish) were sacred to Set, one of the Egyptian deities of the time. Thus the Egyptians would throw what they would not eat themselves at the suffering Israelites, feeding them at little cost. And the cucumbers, water-melons, leeks, onions, and garlic were all things that grew in the field. As anyone who works in farming knows, the single greatest expense is usually getting the produce to its urban destination. That is especially true of water-melons. Thus providing growing food on site is the cheapest conceivable way of maintaining a functioning slave population.
Perhaps that was the substance of their complaint. They wanted to be supplied with meat without worry 'Who will give us food to eat' (11:4) - from a 'source' that 'would miss it'. Indeed, G-d was to throw at them as much quail meat as they wanted (11:31-2) in a similar way as their Egyptian masters had thrown at them their 'bill of fare'.
That is perhaps why Moses despaired of the Israelites, and just wanted to give them up. As he prayed: 'Kill me… if I have found favor in Your eyes - and do not let me face my own ruin' (11:15). They had experienced the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah. They had accepted the Torah with naaseh ve-nishma: 'we will obey and we will listen' (Ex. 24:7). Their immediate previous experiences prepared them for continuing and developing the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whose prime concerns were raising the spiritual level of their families, society, humanity, and future generations.
But the Israelites had not even changed themselves. They were the same people with the same slave mentality. From that point of view, they might just have well been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses saw his life's work as a glaring failure.
That point helps to explain G-d's two-fold response to Moses:
Firstly He said he would show the Israelites where they stood then and teach them a lesson. The slave mentality was to be wiped out once and for all:
G-d will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month - until it comes right out of your nostrils and you loathe it - because rejected G-d, who is among you (19:20).
Secondly, he demonstrated their true place in the Creation - where their previous experience was to ultimately lead them.
G-d said to Moses: 'Bring me seventy of Israel's elders who are known to you as leaders and officers among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to bear them alone (11:16-17).
Thus the people would be one step closer to continuing the Patriarchs' connecting Humanity to the Source. By that, G-d would not communicate with Moses alone, but with the chosen worthy. Connection with G-d was possible for anyone - even those not specially selected - as shown by the next story of Eldad and Meidad…
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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