The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.
The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”
The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.
What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:
“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar 732).
Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:
“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”
Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.
Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:
“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”
At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.
The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?
“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?
The secret of all this is found in the world chinam — “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.
Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.
Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.
Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.