‘We want meat’
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Beha’alotecha is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
In Parshat Beha’alotecha, the Children of Israel complained that they were sick of eating manna and wanted meat.
“We remember the fish that we would eat in Egypt for free… but now our souls are dried, there is nothing to look at apart from the manna,” (Bamidbar 11:5-6).
It is surprising that they were not satisfied with the most versatile and delicious food ever eaten. But even more surprising is Moshe’s response. He complains to God, “Why have done evil to Your servant, and why do I not find favor in Your eyes that you placed the burden of all this people on me. Was I pregnant with this people, did I give birth to them? Yet You say to me, ‘Carry them in your arms like a nursemaid carries a baby.’… From where will I have meat to give to all this people? For they cry to me, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ I cannot bear all this nation alone for it is too heavy for me,” (Bamidbar 11:11-14).
But the strangest of all is God’s response. “Gather for me 70 men of the elders of Israel.”
To recap – the people complained about the manna and asked for meat. Moshe despaired, saying that this request was far too difficult for him. And God’s solution was to create a Sanhedrin. It is true that after Moshe gathered the 70 elders, God brought quail for the Children of Israel to eat. But why could He not do that through Moshe without creating a Sanhedrin?
Meat and milk
According to halacha, meat and milk cannot be mixed together. The milk which nurtures the young cannot be eaten with the meat of the mother.
The Talmud (Taanit 9a) says that the manna came in the merit of Moshe. The parsha describes manna as tasting like “shad hashamen.” I don’t know how that is translated in your Chumash, but it could mean “fatted breast.” The manna was how Moshe breastfed the people.
When he heard the request for meat, Moshe likened himself to one who conceived and gave birth to the nation, who acted as a nursemaid to nurture the Children of Israel. Moshe provided “milk” to the nation.
When the people asked for meat, they were rejecting not only the manna, but the leadership of Moshe, who provided them with manna. The only solution was to create a new form of leadership that would provide meat for the nation. Moshe was the nurturing mother. The Sanhedrin acted like a father who provides meat.
Two approaches to halacha
The meat and milk of leadership also represents two approaches to halacha.
Moshe was the lawgiver. The Sanhedrin was the arbiters of judgment. When Moshe didn’t know the answer to a question, he went straight to ask God. If the Sanhedrin had a doubt in halacha, they deliberated and decided based on the majority opinion.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 6a-b) discusses two forms of justice. One is mediation. When two litigants come before a judge, he may, with their agreement, try to resolve the dispute with a compromise position. This is similar to the role Moshe played when the people had questions or complaints. He would try to work through them without appeal to previous laws. In contrast, if the parties refuse to compromise, the court is instructed to use the strict letter of the law. In the Talmud’s words, “Let the law pierce the mountain.” This is the role of the Sanhedrin.
The Torah was only given to those who ate manna
The Mechilta (Beshalach 2) says that the Torah was only given to those who ate manna. That is one reason we eat dairy products on Shavuot. But in this parsha, having received the Torah, the nation wants something to get their teeth into. They want to be able to process and digest the Torah and stop being treated like babies.
This is why Moshe could not provide them with meat. That was not his role. And even though the people were punished for rejecting Moshe’s Torah, it also allowed them to mature and have a Sanhedrin to lead them.