Let Them Eat Meat

June 24, 2009

15 min read


Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

The strangest conversation recorded in the Torah takes place in our Torah portion.

Moses said, "Six hundred thousand foot soldiers are the people in whose midst I am, yet You say I shall give them meat, and they shall eat for a month of days! Can sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them and suffice for them? Or if all the fish of the sea will be gathered for them, would it suffice for them?"

God said to Moses, "Is the hand of God limited? Now you will see whether My word comes to pass or not!" (Numbers 11: 21-23)

So what did Moses think -- that the hand of God was limited? And if he did think it, then how did God's answer satisfy him? How is it conceivable that Moses could entertain such thoughts? If Moses our greatest prophet, the deliverer of the Torah has doubts about God's omnipotence, what can anyone expect from the likes of us?

Nachmanides explains:

  • Moses thought that it would take a miracle to supply a camp of several million people with fresh meat for a month in the desert. No doubt in a large country with a well developed meat industry this could be done by natural means, but for the Jews wandering in the desert it could only be accomplished miraculously.
  • He also knew that such miraculous provision would be inappropriate. There are only two kinds of miracles. 1) There are miracles that provide some great good in times of distress, such as the manna that fed the Jews in the desert, or the splitting of the sea to rescue the Jews from the Egyptians. 2) There are miracles such as the Ten Plagues or the Flood, which serve to demonstrate God's anger against evildoers and the resulting vengeance He is capable of exacting
  • The provision of fresh meat to satisfy the cravings of well-fed people, a proceeding that would produce no demonstrable good and which would harm some of the consumers of that meat simply does not fit into the niche carved out for miracles. Therefore Moses assumed that the provision of the meat would have to be accomplished without the aid of miracles under the strict restrictions of natural law. In fact Moses was perfectly correct. The provision of the slav birds was indeed accomplished naturally. God sent a type of wind which may have been unlikely but was statistically possible within the rules of natural law, and this wind rounded up the birds from their nesting places around the Mediterranean and brought them to the camp
  • Once we understand that we are dealing with a natural event, Moses' skepticism becomes comprehensible. He simply could not see how so much fresh meat, that would have to be collected from the area surrounding the camp, could be made available at such short notice under natural law
  • God informed Moses that He had no need of miracles to accommodate the people's desire as He had assured in advance that the world would be stocked with adequate resources in the area to supply the fresh meat necessary to feed the entire Jewish populace for a full month. He was giving them manna from choice, not necessity.


If we consider the deeper implications of this conversation as it is explained by Nachmanides, we immediately realize that this escape from the world of miracles back into the universe of natural law is the point of this entire slav bird incident.

The Jewish people are tired of spiritual food. They want real natural food that you can really sink your physical teeth into. God fully understands their desire and decides to accommodate it for a while.

The commentators explain that God wanted to demonstrate that even this feat, the satisfaction of human natural desire to the full, and this by purely natural means, without the slightest need of miraculous intervention was also within the scope of His power. Only when the Jews perceived that God could indeed accomplish this did they return to a state of tranquility and resume eating the manna. (See Rabeinu Bachya.)

What is going on here?

These are not ordinary people. This is the desert generation.

These are not ordinary people. This is the desert generation who experienced the Exodus, who met God on Mount Sinai, who lived inside the Holy Cloud, ate the manna, drank the waters of Miriam's well. These were people who were accustomed to nothing else but miracles! The world of miracles was their familiar environment and the physicality of Egypt only a nostalgic memory. All of us are nostalgic about the golden days of our youth, which never fail to assume a rosy tinge in the light of retrospect, but we never indulge this feeling to the point of hysteria. Why were these people so different? Why was this single month allowed to become the exception to a way of life that was to be the norm throughout the forty years of the desert generation? What was the point that was so important to make here?


Our story begins with three miraculous phenomena. The rabbis inform us (Talmud, Ta'anit 9a) that the manna came down in the merit of Moses, the clouds surrounded the camp in the merit of Aaron, while the water in the well ran in the merit of Miriam.

When we say something comes in the merit of someone, this automatically implies that without his presence it wouldn't be there at all. Sure enough, when Miriam died the water stopped, and while it was returned in the merit of Moses and Aaron, this recovery was only achieved at great cost, through the smiting of the rock, (Numbers 20) an incident that ultimately cost us the lives of both these great leaders.

When Aaron died we lost the protective cloud and Israel had to suffer through the anxiety of an attack by an Amalakite army before Moses managed to restore the cloud in his merit (Numbers 21.) When Moses died we lost all three permanently.

Where shall I get meat to give to this entire people when they weep to me saying, "Give us meat that we may eat"? ... God said to Moses, "Gather to me seventy men from the elders of Israel." (Numbers 11:13-16)

Explains Rav Dessler: Moses brought the manna because that was the only food with which he was comfortable. On his level of closeness to God, he had already surpassed the world of physicality and was sustained entirely by the undisguised spiritual input he received from God. As there is no scarcity up above, there is little difference between feeding one individual or several million, and so, the entire Jewish people ate manna, the only sort of food that Moses found palatable, at Moses' table.

Aaron could only feel comfortable living in God's tent.

In the same way, Aaron could only feel comfortable living in God's tent and the entire Jewish people were able to share his accommodation. Miriam supplied water from heaven as if it were mother's milk, as that was the nourishment that flowed from her maternal breast.

When the people asked Moses to provide them with meat, he was at a loss. He knew that he could not serve as a conduit for the provision of physical meat to satisfy an earthy craving -- such a thing was simply beyond him. He needed help from people who were still attached to the physical world, however slightly. They would serve as the conduit for the provision of the actual meat. They would transform the spiritual input received by Moses and translate it into phenomena that could fit into the purely physical world.

Living in conditions only attainable in someone else's merit means living beyond one's means in a world to which one does not belong.


To help us bring this down to earth let us examine three possible scenarios in our own world.

Scenario I: John is a humanities professor down on his luck. Being the type of person who possesses both the intelligence and background necessary to fully appreciate cultural events, in his better days, John was always in attendance when a famous orchestra delivered a concert of some classical piece in town, or when a new Shakespearean play opened. Now that he has fallen on difficult times he can no longer afford these luxuries. But John has a rich cousin Bill who shares his interests. Bill makes a point of taking John whenever he attends a cultural function that he knows John would enjoy. He can easily spare the money and it increases his pleasure to share these experiences with a cousin that he is attached to. In this scenario, John can only enjoy the world of culture that he loves in Bill's merit, and he can enjoy it to the full extent because he genuinely belongs there – the world of culture is his world. He has no trouble in accepting his cousin's largesse (even if he would prefer to pay for himself once in a while).

Scenario II: John is a junior executive in a prestigious publishing house. He is a very bright young man from a disadvantaged background who worked his way through school and was hired by the somewhat stodgy and pompous old firm for his obvious marketing skill. The senior managers of the firm, all blue stockings to a man, think John has a lot of promise but needs some polish to truly fit in to the firm. They make it a practice to take him once a week to a "cultural" event such as a play or a concert, and afterwards out to supper in a high class restaurant that only top drawer people patronize. John is fascinated and flattered by the attention. He is eager to attend but never quite comfortable. He always finds the evening a tremendous strain. He is always nervous that he will say the wrong thing or use the wrong fork. He is always relieved when the evening is over but he would never miss it for the world.

Scenario III: John manages one of the farms of a large agricultural conglomerate. His farm happens to be quite a significant part of the corporate business and he often finds himself flying to the big city to attend meetings at corporate headquarters. Everything is first class on these trips, only the best hotels, Cordon Blue restaurants etc. and all at corporate expense, but nevertheless John always faces these trips with dread. He can't stand wearing a suit and tie. He cannot finish a sentence without inserting a couple of expletives, he is bored to death by the talk, by the music, and by the entertainment, the food is always too delicate for his palate and he is always fighting dozing off. If he doesn't tune out and does pay attention, he invariably laughs in the wrong places bringing down horrified stares on his poor head. He is a farm boy through and through, has never denied it, and is proud of it. For him the experience of living in someone else's merit is unalloyed torture.

The Jewish people, eating the manna at Moses' table, found themselves on the level of John III and were saying "let me out of here I just want to get back to my farm. I just can't function in this type of atmosphere." The food on the farm is meat, not manna.

They were still tense eating the manna, but they were able to relate to eating it as an educational process.

The elders brought the people to the level of John II. They could still relate to people who lived on the farm and ate meat. Under their gentle tutelage the people were able to rise to the level of John II. They were still tense eating the manna, but they were able to relate to eating it as an educational process, that would assist them to advance in the spiritual firm. They could relate to it as something useful. The Jewish people as a whole were never interested in remaining on the farm permanently in spiritual terms.


Rav Dessler goes on to map out the territory of spiritual endeavor. Each human life oscillates between the high point of spiritual elation and inspiration and the low point of depression and confusion.

The Talmud (Sabbath 88a) presents two apparently conflicting portraits of the encounter with God at Sinai. On the one hand the Talmud relates that God suspended the mountain over the heads of the Jewish people and told them "either you accept the Torah here and now or I will bury you under the mountain." On the other hand, we are told that the Jews were so inspired that they spontaneously declared "we shall accept even before you tell us the terms; we trust you implicitly and have no need to read the fine print."

Each person has a worldview that he has developed as to the spiritual necessities of life. The Jewish people who left Egypt and followed God into the desert and the unknown must have concluded to themselves that following God was a necessity of life. In metaphoric terms this is represented by the suspension of the mountain. Necessities are not dependant on inspiration. We can always do what is necessary no matter how confused we feel.

On the other hand we can all be inspired and swept away by a fierce longing for spiritual growth that grips us in moments of elation and clarity. The encounter with God was a tremendously uplifting experience. Never before or since have human beings perceived God with such clarity. The inspiration of God's obvious love and concern inspired the feeling of unquestioning trust and prompted them to make a commitment beyond their level of understanding.

Conditions have altered drastically since that fateful encounter but human beings have not.

Conditions have altered drastically since that fateful encounter but human beings have not. If you take them beyond their level of inspiration they will feel constrained and uncomfortable instead of inspired and elated. If you compel them beyond their point of recognition of necessity they will perceive the suspended mountain as something terrifying instead of merely a confirmation and validation of their perception of reality.

Thus the open spiritual territory in the human psyche is the area mapped out by these two extreme points -- the point of perception and the point of inspiration.


It is only within this territory that God can deal with human beings in spiritual terms. When the people of Israel came to Moses and complained that subsisting on the manna was well beyond their point of inspiration, and the only reaction such a diet induced in them was extreme discomfort, God met their demand sympathetically and lowered his interaction with them to a point that was within their spiritual territory.

Even God is limited in the universe of free will. True, the outer reality never constrains Him, but the territory of free will, man's inner reality -- the open space in the human mind between the two points of the human psyche -- also confines God.

In fact, while we tend to view the traumatic spiritual changes in the world that have occurred through history as punishments for human sin, they can also be understood as necessary readjustments that were taken to accommodate the spiritual comfort levels of mankind. No doubt being driven out of the Garden of Eden was a traumatic experience for Adam, but under the circumstances, Paradise was not a place where he could function comfortably within the open territory of his own spirituality, and thus his banishment was really for his own comfort.

The same could be said about the cataclysmic exiles that followed the destruction of both Temples. The point of living in this world is to contend with our spiritual development through the intelligent exercise of our own free will. We can only do this properly if we find ourselves within circumstances that conform to the open spiritual territory within our psyches. We cannot function successfully in spiritual discomfort. When we find the physical trappings of our relationship with God too burdensome, it is a sign that we are living spiritually beyond our comfort level.

We only imagine that we would appreciate life in a universe full of miracles but the evidence all points the other way. If we genuinely desired such a life we could surely obtain it. The Torah shows us that God has no difficulty at all in providing such a universe. The universe of meat is far more difficult to arrange. The problem is not with God. It is we who feel uncomfortable eating at such tables. Nor do we have anyone among us these days of sufficient merit whose table we could sit at. We would all rather eat meat.

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