The Torah, beginning from the Book of Exodus, is the story of the budding relationships that developed between God and His People, the Children of Israel. It is a tense dynamic, fractured and fractious. The Israelites are only months removed from their sudden liberation from slavery, and, God was not patient with what He viewed as their ingratitude and profound lack of enthusiasm. Each had high expectations of the other; neither thought the other was meeting them. And in between was the often hapless Moses.
Moses was God’s reluctant servant, cajoled into performing a thankless task, one which he had resisted and one he never felt confident in or competent to perform. He stood at the apex, bearing the weight of the Israelites complaints, which were made often, and God’s angry reaction.
The Israelites were a complex horde. All they had known, and indeed their fathers and mothers before them for over ten generations had experienced, was oppression at the hands of a foreign ruler, and undoubtedly the sense that the God of their forefathers had abandoned them. In a matter of months that had dramatically changed. A stranger named Moses had appeared, an emissary of the God of their forefathers, and with the hand of God at his side, had liberated them and wreaked vengeance on their persecutors. With their redemption came their rebirth as a people and the beginnings of a nation. Yet, as we probably have learned from our modern day experiences, that transition, was going to be, and indeed was a rocky road. They exhibited a strong sense of entitlement. They acted like spoiled children and expected Moses to be alert to and fulfill their every want. They felt that he was beholden to them. He had led them out of Egypt, which to them looked rosy in the rear view mirror, into a barren wasteland, which looked and was a foreboding place.
Moses was the man in the middle; working to build the Children of Israel into a people and concurrently trying to mollify God, who was impatient with his people. And he was the ideal mediator. Moses shared with God an intimate and fairly familiar relationship. He did not fear God and appeared comfortable confronting him and forcing God to examine and re-examine His responses to the Israelites piques of ingratitude. He was the hinge that connected God to His People, and, he was very good at it.
Parsha BeHa’alotcha records an example of the sometimes dysfunctional dynamic that engulfed the relationship between God and His people, and which demonstrated Moses’ unique abilities to reconcile them; an excellent exposition of the interplay between the three.
The context of their exchange was a familiar one; food, one of man’s most basic needs. However, it wasn’t that they lacked food; rather the Israelites were not happy with what they had to eat. They were no longer satisfied by the manna that God had provided. They complained about the lack of meat; it is unclear whether God’s gift of quail had run its course, or, they were not satisfied by the portions made available to them. In any event, their ingratitude provoked God’s rage. Moses knew that God’s response would not be benign, yet he did not pray or seek to appeal to God’s mercy. Rather he confronted Him. In so doing, he shifted God’s focus away the Israelites, and on to himself.
The Torah records a remarkable exchange between them, enunciating themes that have become a stalwart of English literature and the framework for what is often called Jewish comedy. First, Moses chided God; “Why do You deal ill with your servant? Have I not found favour in Your sight, that You lay the burden of this entire people upon me?” Then he tried to make God feel responsible for his predicament; “Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that You should say unto me: Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carries the sucking child, into the land which You did swear unto their fathers?” And then, to use the vernacular, he tried to make God feel “guilty”: “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray that if I have found favour in Your sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.”
His approach was effective, enough to soften God’s ire. However, God responded to Moses in a rather oblique fashion, dripping with sarcasm and cloaked with irony: “I will give you flesh and you shall eat. You shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, True to His word, the Israelites stuffed themselves with quail: While the flesh was yet between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of God was kindled against the people, and God smote the people with a very great plague.” How people were killed and how many died are matters of conjecture – a later census suggests very few. Yet, a point had been made, albeit in a most dramatic way.