Parashat B’haalot’cha

May 24, 2021

by Bettijane Eisenpreis

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”  — Numbers 11:4-6

Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch! Ever since Moses led them across the Jordan, the Israelites have had one complaint after another. In this episode, Moses gets angry at them, and then so does God. Their punishment – God gives them so much quail to eat that they get sick and many of them die.

I can understand Moses getting frustrated. The people have never given him credit for the extraordinary feat of liberating them from Egypt and guiding them through the desert. At the end of Deuteronomy, after Moses’ death, it says, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord singled out face to face,” but that’s the Biblical author speaking, not the Children of Israel. During his lifetime, Moses was certainly underappreciated.

The problem with this story is not Moses’ behavior but God’s, which is not what we would expect of an all-wise and all-forgiving Heavenly Parent. In addition, there is the persistent problem of predestination versus free will. If God is all-powerful, did He or She ordain that the Children of Israel would be disobedient? And if not, how powerful can God be if He or She cannot control the Children?

Anyone who has been a parent, or who has been in a position of authority, can understand how quickly the situation can spiral out of control. It only takes one or two trouble-makers, in this case, the “riffraff,” to start the ball rolling. They begin to complain and, before long, the rest of the group chimes in. It’s at this point, however, that Dr. Spock would tell Moses and God to act like adults, take a deep breath and call for a “time-out”.

But it doesn’t happen. Moses gets angry, and then God gets angrier. The end result is not simply too much quail and some upset stomachs but wholesale death and destruction. Why doesn’t God realize that the newly freed Children of Israel, while adults in years, have never had a chance to really grow up? The term “Children of Israel” is true in more ways than one.

It will take forty years in the desert to develop a new generation, one that is mature enough to enter the promised land. Meanwhile, as He continues to struggle with the Children, God’s actions not always comprehensible to modern eyes. In the end, all we can say is that God is a mystery.

The Bible was written by people whose understanding of God was by definition limited. The God of the Torah often behaves the same way that many people behave, so the Torah contains more questions than answers, just as life does. And that is why it has survived for so many generations, inspiring us to continue to seek answers as we live our lives.