The Israelites journeyed through the wilderness when the Divine Presence still whispered in their midst. Though the sense of God’s footfall has long faded in our own turbulent times, the two rhetorical questions that punctuate this week’s Torah reading still resound. In one, the people complain, “If only we had meat to eat!”—more literally, who will feed us meat?; in the other, Moses calls for shared leadership: “If only all God’s people were prophets”—more literally, who will make all of God’s people prophets? These two questions by definition have no answers, yet they point to greater, real questions: To whom do we cast our eyes when hungry? What should we really desire?
In Numbers, chapter 11, two incidents are interwoven: the first centers on the people’s craving for meat, which prompts the second: the transference of prophecy from Moses to the seventy elders. A cry of complaint opens each story. The first moves from the riffraff who “felt a gluttonous craving,” to the Israelites’ demand: “’If only we had flesh to eat!’” (v, 4). Moses expresses the second in exasperated response: “’Have I conceived all this people? Have I given birth to them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing father carries a suckling child…’” (v, 12). He is fed up; the people are feckless, too heavy a burden for him to bear.
God answers both complaints by bringing a spirit or wind (ru’aḥ), first to draw the quails from the sea (v. 31), and later to draw the spirit of prophecy from Moses onto the elders (vv. 16-17). Yet both solutions seemingly end in failure. The seventy elders indeed prophesy or speak in ecstasy (mitna’bim), but only once, never again (v. 25). The people’s appetite for meat is also answered, yet “while the meat is still between their teeth, not yet chewed,” God strikes them with a deathly plague (v. 33). What is the relationship between the two solutions and why, ultimately, do they fail?
Let’s look at the nature of the people’s craving in detail. To justify their appetite for meat, they say: “Now, our souls are dried up. There is nothing at all other than the manna for our eyes to behold” (v. 6). Perhaps it’s the monotony of the manna they tire of. They list the flavors they miss, grown in Egyptian earth—cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (v.5). Yet the craving is misplaced.
According to the great commentator Nachmanides (“the Ramban”), the problem of the manna was not its monotony, but the vulnerability it engendered. “There is no comparison between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not.” To be dependent on bread heaven-sent is not to have bread in one’s basket. The people could not hoard it; if any manna was leftover the next day, it bred worms and stank (Exodus 16:20). Every day (except Shabbat), it was found at dawn with the morning dew, and they would each gather a portion adequate to satisfy their daily needs.
The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th-century Poland), in his commentary Ha‘ameq Davar, elaborates on the Ramban’s idea. Being dependent on the manna for sustenance on a daily basis highlights their dependence on God. When they craved meat, it was really a pretext. “They did not want to cast their eyes to their Father in Heaven,” he writes, “waiting for the manna to fall!” To answer their supposed need, the meat would come from the surface of the earth, or (in the case of the quail) be swept in from the sea. “Measure for measure,” the meat would come from the earth—and lead to their burial in the ground; a layer of quail a mile wide and a foot deep was swept in by the wind—and they ate until it was loathsome, for they had made themselves loathsome in rejecting God (v. 20). And those who “felt a gluttonous craving (hit’avu ta’avah)” (v. 3) are condemned to qivrot ha-ta’avah, the Graves of Lust (v. 34).
The next incident moves from the people’s craving for meat to those who prophesy in ecstasy. Moses gathers the seventy elders of Israel and places them around the Tent of Meeting. God descends in a cloud, drawing from the Spirit (ru’aḥ) that rests upon Moses and transferring it to the elders. “And when the Spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy but did not continue” (v. 25). But why? Clearly this ru’aḥ is divinely inspired, following the descent of the cloud over the Tabernacle, in contrast to the seemingly natural phenomenon of the wind (also ru’aḥ) which drove the quail in from the sea (v. 31).
Yet no words are reported as spoken. Perhaps the intention was not to transform the seventy elders into prophets, but to grant them authority, which would help them share in the burden of leadership. In the end, however, Moses remains unique, the only one to engage in dialogue with God and, as a result, he stands all the more alone.
Because ecstatic prophecy never modulates into dialogue with God, the burden of bearing the people is ultimately never shared. Later, when Joshua cries out in distress over Eldad and Medad spontaneously prophesying within the camp outside of the jurisdiction of God’s descent over the Tabernacle—“My lord, Moses, stop them!”—(v. 28), Moses answers: “If only all the Eternal’s people were prophets, and that the Eternal would put His Spirit upon them!” (v. 29). Is it the Spirit of God as speech which is so rare? Or is the receptivity to God’s word?
In Isaiah’s vision of the End of Days, God’s spirit will rest upon all who crave the word. “Even as I pour water on thirsty soil, and rain upon dry ground, so will I pour My spirit (ruḥi) on your offspring, My blessing upon your posterity” (Isaiah 44:3). In contrast to this vision stands the generation of the wilderness, withered souls who craved meat, writhing under their dependence on God—no appetite for the bread-of-Heaven, balking at the word.
That the elders could not sustain prophecy, where their spiritual ecstasy might have modulated into language, was simply indicative of that generation. The desire Moses articulates, “If only all the Eternal’s people were prophets!”, resonates as an eternal message. If only they had desired God’s word, or, at least sought to understand it as ballast against the desert wind, they would have been sated “like water on thirsty soil and rain upon dry ground.”
The questions remain for us: Do we hear the call? How is our generation called to understand and transmit the divine message through these turbulent times?
Rachel Adelman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She received her Ph.D. at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem. Her most recent book is The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield-Phoenix Press, 2015). When she not writing books, articles, or divrei torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.
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