There are some torah readings that just seem to be made for vegetarians, and Beha’alotecha is one of them. The graphic image of the Israelites feeding upon the quail, stuffing the meat into themselves until it “came out of their nostrils” and then dying “with the meat still stuck between their teeth” is almost too repugnant to bear. It speaks to us of overweening greed, of the desire for fleshly pleasure fulfilled to the extent of costing the life of the one who indulges too far. It is both gross and pathetic, seedy and overwhelming.
The people, often rather unattractive in their behaviour in the wilderness with their complaining and rebelling, their argumentative and sullen responses to Moses’ words to them, are here at their most revolting. Their failure once again to understand what God is doing for them, their inability to comprehend ideas about freedom, communal responsibility, behavioural limits – leads them to what must be the most explicitly nauseating end in the whole of biblical narrative.
Early on in the Exodus the newly freed slaves, terrified of what they had done in leaving the security of Egyptian society and worried about simple survival in a hostile wilderness, complained to Moses – “you saved us from slavery and brought us here to this desert to kill us all with starvation and famine?”.
God understood the narrow horizons of the people, the shrivelled imaginations and the visceral fear of a people who had forgotten how to be independent, how to have pride in themselves and the self-confidence necessary to go out and make a life. So that time God showered the Israelite refugees with quail and with the miraculous manna, the food which was said to have tasted like coriander or honey or rich cream – the food that tradition said tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste of.
But now, here in the book of Numbers after all the experiences of care and support by God here in the wilderness, this time the situation is different. “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons the leeks and onions and garlic. But now our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all except this manna to look at” (Num 11)
There are a number of problems in this complaint. Are the people complaining that the diet isn’t varied enough? That manna – even tasting of different things, was still indisputably manna – and a bit boring for that? Are they desperate for something a little more solid? – they specify meat, food that tended to be eaten only on special occasions – and usually connected to the sacrificial system, when meat would be a by product of the worship of God?
Is it specifically Egypt they crave, with the system that may have been slavery but at least it was something they knew and could therefore cope with? Were they saying they didn’t want to break out into a more independent way of being? Or is it the idea that the food in Egypt was so plentiful and all present that they could take it for free – without responsibility to its production, without obligation to others?
The manna of course was also available to them for free, but somehow that didn’t count – there was no thought given to the deity who was providing their sustenance, no connection made in their heads between the availability of the miraculous manna and the Creator of the world who was making this every day miracle.
Whatever the reason – and I imagine it was a combination of reasons, this time both God and Moses found the people’s complaining and self-absorption infuriating and intolerable. This time God gave them just what they said they wanted – in spades – and they died from it.
When we first came across manna in the early part of the Exodus, we are told that God gave them it in order to test them. But what the test was is left to our imagination. Rashi tells us the test is of obedience, that God wanted to see if the people would collect the manna in the way that God had commanded – just enough for each day, not keeping it overnight. Not going out to collect it on Shabbat but relying on what was collected before the Shabbat. Each of these tests of course were failed – the people clearly did not trust that the manna would be there the next morning, that it could not be kept overnight in good condition, that the Shabbat would be somehow special in that no manna would be found but the manna retained would continue to be edible. The people failed because they were frightened and because they were unimaginative – they had been in slavery too long and all they could construct was the practical concrete concepts around physical survival.
When Moses knew he was dying and would not continue with the people into the land he had been taking them to, he wrote a number of speeches explaining to them both the story and the meaning of their history, full of warnings and reminders. Of manna he said “Remember the path along which the eternal your God led you those forty years in the desert. God sent hardships to test you, to see what is in your heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments or not. God made life difficult for you, letting you go hungry and then feeding you manna. And manna was that which neither you nor your ancestors had ever before experienced. This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human being lives, but by all that comes out of God’s mouth” (Deut 8:2-3).
So Moses understood what the test was – it was not literally about the food, but it was about the people’s willingness to listen and to follow Gods commandments, to accept the limitations about what could and could not be done, and the food was simply the structure around which it would be seen whether or not the people were able to accept the restrictions that following God might place upon them.