Biha’aloscha – The Negative Effect Physical Desires for Food Have on Faith

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There are two episodes in the Torah which seem to mirror each other but had vastly different outcomes. In this week’s Torah portion Biha’aloscha the Jews complained that they were not given meat to eat which they desired, as the Torah states, “But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the Children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at’” (Bamidbar 11:4-6).  Hashem responded, “And to the people, you shall say, ‘Prepare yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, because you have cried in the ears of the Lord saying, ‘Who will feed us meat, for we had it better in Egypt.’ [Therefore,] the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat it not one day, not two days, not five days, not ten days, and not twenty days. But even for a full month until it comes out your nose and nauseates you. Because you have despised the Lord Who is among you, and you cried before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt’” (11:18-20)? In the end, “The people rose up all that day and all night and the next day and gathered the quails. [Even] the one who gathered the least collected ten heaps. They spread them around the camp in piles. The meat was still between their teeth; it was not yet finished, and the anger of the Lord flared against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very mighty blow” (11:32, 33). The Jewish people were in the desert for a couple of years at that point, and were on the way to Israel to possess their Promise Land, before they sent the spies. They had been eating nourishing manna all this time, yet the Ralbag in this week’s Torah portion says that they didn’t lust for something they required, they were simply running after their desires, since the manna was technically enough for them. But there was a group of lowlifes that left with the Jews out of Egypt who had convinced many of the Jews to cry and say that they very much desired that Hashem give them meat to eat, and even though they had a surplus of cattle, as it says, “And also, a great mixed multitude went up with them, and flocks and cattle, very much livestock” (Shemos 12:38), yet they wanted to find some excuse to have Hashem give them meat.

In a similar vein, right after the Jewish people witnessed all the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea, when their belief and trust in Hashem reached such a peak that Hashem testified, “so said the Lord: I remember to you the loving kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown” (Yirmiyahu 2:2), an expression of endearment for the Jewish people following blindly Hashem out of Egypt into a barren desert. Yet the Torah relates, “The entire community of the children of Israel complained against Moses and against Aaron in the desert. The children of Israel said to them, If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death…And Moses said, When the Lord gives you in the evening meat to eat and bread in the morning [with which] to become sated, when the Lord hears your complaints, which you are making [the people] complain against Him, but [of] what [significance] are we? Not against us are your complaints, but against the Lord… And Moses said to Aaron, Say to the entire community of the children of Israel, Draw near before the Lord, for He has heard your complaints.…It came to pass in the evening that the quails went up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. The layer of dew went up, and behold, on the surface of the desert, a fine, bare [substance] as fine as frost on the ground” (Shemos 16:2-3, 8-9, 13-14). They just left Egypt with such wonderous miracles as eating from fruit trees miraculously grown and producing succulent fruit as they were walking through dryland in the splitting of the Red Sea, as well as drinking fresh water from the walls of salty seawater on either side of them, plus much sheep and cattle which left with them out of Egypt. Yet when they got to the desert of Cin their physical desire of hunger caused them to complain to Hashem. Yet at that point Hashem listened to them but did not punish them; on the contrary, he began giving them manna and quail.

What was the difference between these two episodes? Both times it would seem that the Jewish people were at such great height of belief and trust in Hashem that they should have trusted in Hashem to feed them at first, and later what Hashem had been feeding them; yet they complained that they wanted to go back to Egypt, as the Ralbag in the Torah portion of Bishalach says, since meat was found there in plenty. Both times Hashem listened to their complaints and gave them what they wanted. But the second time they were punished, and many died; what changed?
The Ralbag in his Toaliyos learns a very important lesson from here in this week’s portion, “this is to inform us that it is not befitting of a person to run after his physical desires, for we see what happened to those who ran after their desires and many of them died. However, the Almighty Hashem wanted to fulfill their request to show the nation that the hand of Hashem is not shorthanded so that they will strengthen their faith in the Almighty Hashem. He showed them the He brought for them such an abundance of meat to last a month, for even the least amount a person gathered was ten laden donkeys full. Now, behold The Almighty Hashem did not punish when they asked for meat and bread in the Desert of Cin because then they did not have manna and it was appropriate for them to ask for bread and sustenance. However, now, when they had manna the problem was, they were running after their physical desires or their intent was to test The Almighty Hashem if he can give them meat in such abundance.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We first learn from here that one’s physical desires, at the very least for food, can cause someone, even at such lofty levels of belief and trust in Hashem, to question their faith.
We also see how two episodes, which at first glance look exactly the same, can have drastically different results. For in the first case in Bishalach, all they wanted was a much-needed well-balanced diet, which Hashem patiently provided when they asked for it, though they did so in the form of a complaint. But in this week’s portion of Biha’aloscha their complaints stemmed from running after a desire that they wanted but did not need. Therefore, even though Hashem did fulfill their request, just to teach them a lesson in strengthening their faith, it came with deadly consequences.

It is very important to get to the root of an issue and to see the subtle differences before concluding that two things might look the same.