Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 6 June 2020 / 14 Sivan 5780

Complaints and Quail

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Moshe is understandably exasperated with the people — the people whom he led out of Egypt and so devotedly sought to educate to an elevated mission of spirituality. To this end, G-d miraculously provided water and spiritual manna bread. But now they complain — cry and wail — over the garlic and onions they had consumed so freely in Egypt. To Moshe, this attested to the failure of his mission. He was to have won the people’s hearts to the supreme ideal of moral and spiritual perfection, and here the people were wailing about the lack of onions!

Lamenting his failure, Moshe says, “Have I conceived this nation or given birth to it, so that You should say to me: Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries the suckling infant?” If a father or mother fails in some regard as a parent, this is somewhat mitigated by the natural love and respect a child has for a parent. But Moshe was not their parent, and without the natural bonds of love and respect, he was not their natural educator.

Moreover, Moshe did not see a way out. Sure, he knew that G-d could perform miracles. But he also knew that the demands of the people here were trivial and inappropriate — they were “bad” in the eyes of G-d and in the eyes of Moshe. (Bamidbar 11:1, 10) This was hardly the kind of crisis that Hashem would resolve with a miracle.And, the people didn’t want “miraculous” food — they wanted real meat, not manna. Therefore, Moshe asks, “Where will I get meat for six hundred thousand people?” He correctly recognized that here they could not expect a miracle from G-d’s strong Hand, and asked for an explanation. G-d’s reply to him was that He has the power to carry out His word even within the framework of natural possibilities: “My word will come towards you.” The event (His word) is beyond all human reckoning, yet it will come towards “you,” meaning that it will occur by natural causes. And, indeed, it was so. No one could have envisioned the fortuitous winds which would divert the migratory path to deposit mountains of quail in the camp of Israel!

In response to Moshe’s complaint, G-d instructs him to appoint seventy elders to assist in leading the nation, a group that constitutes the basis for the future Sanhedrin. But they do not appear to play any role in resolving the meat complaints. Why are they appointed in the middle of this story? In years to come, whenever circumstances do not seem to favor the realization of G-d’s word, and the battle of Israel’s future elders for the fulfillment of G-d’s Word does not seem — by human reckoning — to stand a chance, they will be able to look back for moral support upon those initial moments and the events that surrounded the very first elders of the Jewish People.

These events will always reassure Jewish leaders that as long as the message they represent and convey is the true Word of G-d, they can trust in His hidden Providence. Even without the splitting the sea or ordering the sun to stand still, His Word will come to the people within the natural order. The quail event would give our elders a firm foundation of confidence for all future activity.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 11:10-11, 23

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