Numbers 8:1 to 12:16
The Israelites begin their journeys from Mt. Sinai. Almost from the start the complaining begins and doesn’t stop. This angers God. With all of the material needs of the people met by God, why do the people complain?
The title of this parsha refers to mounting of the lamps on the lampstand in the Tabernacle. The seven lamps should give light to the front of the lampstand. According to a footnote in the Torah, A Modern Commentary, (p. 952) this is done to shine light on the table and the bread displayed on it.
Upon reading this parsha this week, I noted that it emphasizes the complaints by the people. This complaining continues through the rest of Numbers. In fact, because this complaining becomes such a major factor I think that the book we call B’midbar or Numbers could also be know as the Book of Kvetch.
Complaining or kvetching is as common today as it was in biblical times. But one thing that is common of many complaints is that the root cause of these complaints is not the problem addressed by the complaints… but, a deeper underlying issue.
In this week’s text, the first comment about the mood of the people was as follows: “The people took to complaining bitterly before the Eternal. The Eternal heard and was incensed; a fire of the Eternal broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to the Eternal, and the fire died down.” (Num. 11:1-3) The cause of the complaints was not noted.
The people had both water and food which came in the form of manna. But, still the people complained about the lack of meat even though the manna provided by the Eternal, met all their food needs. Then Moses complained to the Eternal about the toll the constant complaining was taking on him.. God suggested that Moses gather seventy elders to assist in dealing with the problems. This was already suggested by Jethro back in Exodus. Now, God is offering the same solution.
It seems that if a complaint had a basis, God provided a solution…. But, if the Eternal sees the complaint (kvetch) as frivolous – as in the following example – a punishment will usually result.
In answer to the complaints about food, God told Moses to tell the people “Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat for you have kept whining before the Eternal saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat!’ The Eternal will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five day or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected the Eternal who is among you, by whining before god and saying,’ Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!’” (Num. 11:18-19) God sent the meat with a strong wind from the sea which carried enough quail to cover the ground two cubits deep. And the people ate and ate….. until God struck the people who complained with a severe plague. The people who died were buried before the travels resumed.
Kvetch… kvetch … kvetch. But why were the people so full of complaints? Rashi suggests that the people were just exhausted from the first days of their travels. And they become upset… angry … and even whined like children recalling the easier times when their food and comfort was provided by others in Egypt. Rambam (Nachmanides) aggres with Rashi and adds that Moses had taken them from familiar and comfortable surroundings of Mt. Sinai to a desolate wilderness with an uncertain future. Rambam also sees a lack of faith in God. Instead of trust in the Eternal, the people griped about food and offered false and exaggerated claims about their lives as slaves in Egypt and their lives as a free people.
Another commentator, Samuel (head of the academy of learning in Nahardea, Babylonia, during the third century) hints that the complaints were really about actions forbidden to them by the laws presented by Moses. He claims that the complaints were about foods that were prohibited… sexual relations out of wedlock … sexual relations with siblings, aunts or uncles, parents, in-laws – all practices that were done in Egypt. He continues by noting that the manna was distributed to the male head of household. So, if a child was born out of wedlock, an extra portion of manna was given to the man and everyone would become aware that he was the father. In effect, the new controls on the people was the root of the complaints… not just the lack of food and water. (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, p. 29-31)
Another, completely different explanation comes from Rabbi Howard Cohen writing for the Reconstructionist website. He looks at the text from a kabalistic view where there is a hidden truth behind the text. The first words of the parsha tell us about the lamp the in the Tabernacle. Then later (Num 9:15-23) we are told that “The Tabernacle is shrouded in a cloudy cloak to obscure, at least a part, of it from view. The word used for “cover” is khaf, sin, hey which means cover as in hide from view.” …. What is hidden? Why is it hidden? Rabbi Cohen feels that the opening lines of the parsha about the lighting of the lamps is a hint to the hidden meaning. He states that this may be a reference to the multiple worlds of the kabalistic system. The cloud “covers” or hides the truth from the people. Not understanding the total picture of what is happening, they kvetch. He finishes his comments with the following… “Perhaps this idea of sacred or true meaning being hidden away is paralleled in our own lives by the fact that we are so much more than what the world often sees. Realizing that, we might then want to ponder the hints or clues that those around us are emitting. (Linguistically the following is pure farce – but “emet” in Hebrew, which is phonetically very close to emit in English, means truth) …. What are we missing?” (www.jewishrecon.org/resource/hidden-meaning )
Then the parsha ends with Miriam kveching to her brother Aaron about Moses …. But that’s a story for another day….. Or maybe a discussion at the Saturday Torah Study,