By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
Shortly after a year after being rescued from Egypt, this week’s Torah parsha, Behaalotecha, provides a glimpse into Moses’ psyche, as well as the state of mind of the Israelites.
The Children of Israel have just learned, via God’s instructions to Moses, that they will soon be leaving Mount Sinai to journey further into the desert. Just as they begin their march to the next destination, there is an eruption of vitriolic complaints: “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions. Now our bodies are dried out for there is nothing at all; we have nothing to eat but manna”(1).
According to Rashi: “the Israelites exaggerated nostalgia for living in a pagan society where there was no sense of spirituality, no commandments, and no singular God to whom they were accountable”(2). It has also been suggested that these grievances were expressed when the Israelites realized the unexpected difficulty of the three-day expedition to their next encampment(3).
Moses had heard such complaints from these newly freed people before (i.e., lack of fresh water, monotony of their diet, boredom, etc.). However, numerous events occurred during their one year of liberation from Egypt: the Revelation at Sinai, the experience of Divine anger after the incident of the ‘golden calf,’ the extensive lists of commandments and directives throughout the entire Book of Leviticus and the long, hard labor they endured to build the Holy Tabernacle. If these experiences could not transform them into believers of the unique ethical-spiritual destiny to which they had been called, what would…or could? Moses’ despair was all too intelligible. For the first time since his mission began, he saw defeat staring him in the face.
Moses said to God: “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you place the burden of the entire people upon me? I cannot carry this burden alone; if this is the way that you treat me, please kill me” (4).
God responded by selecting seventy ‘elders’ from the masses, who had demonstrated the highest level of respect for Moses, as a humble, but great leader. These men perceived Moses as selfless in his goals to satisfy God, to teach the Israelites, and to try and transform them into a great nation. These seventy wise men could not perform miracles. They were given no assignment, except to restore confidence in the heart and soul of their leader.
Simultaneously, God reacted to the vexatious grumbling of the Israelites…. with anger, sarcasm, and severe punishment: “You shall eat meat not one day, not two, not even five days or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils”(5). The place where this happened became known as ‘Kivon Hataavah’ (i.e., graves of craving). The name is symbolic of those Israelites, who vociferously lamented their limited ‘menu;’ and consequently, were put to death(6).
With the seventy elders, God enabled Moses to realize the astounding influence he had on others. All Moses needed to continue was a transparent glimpse of how his spirit could be inspired and communicated to others. Then, he realized what a tremendous difference he had made to the lives of the Israelites, and would continue to do so with their offspring.
(1) NUMBERS (11:4-6)
(2) The Torah: A Modern Commentary
(3) Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (‘Rashbam’) 1085-1158 Troyes, France
(4) NUMBERS (11:11-15)
(5) NUMBERS (11:18-20)