A tall column of cloud moved westward, defying the northern desert winds. Following the cloud were the arrayed tribes of Israel, millions strong. The cloud column stopped its forward movement. Millions of sandaled feet ended their day-long march. A dust cloud, the color of a camel’s hide, enveloped the Israelite camp. The setting sun tinted the vertical cloud column with a reddish hue.
Israelite officers spread out ahead of the mass of people. They carried large wooden poles with colorful flag standards. Methodically, the officers speared the ground with their flags marking the camping grounds of each tribe for the night.
Outside the Israelite perimeter tens of thousands of tribeless ones harshly threw their packs to the ground, kicked at the dust and spat at the sand.
“Curse that Moses,” a tall tribeless man yelled. “He marches us like there is no tomorrow and doesn’t give us a place to camp.”
“It’s not up to Moses, you big lug,” his shorter companion responded. “It’s that cloud we follow blindly.”
The air high above the tribeless warmed up. Dozens of man-sized fireballs sizzled into formation in the sky. They descended furiously, burning hundreds of bodies. People ran in all directions. Scouts and officers ran to find Moses.
The first scouts reached a scowling Moses approaching his tent. They reported to him about the damage of the fireballs. Moses quickly ducked into his tent. Joshua, his attendant, was sitting in the tent reviewing scrolls that Moses had written. Joshua saw Moses close his eyes and look upward in silent prayer. A few moments later, the fireballs stopped raining down. The darkening sky cleared.
Still scowling, Moses exited his tent and looked up at the sky. He heard loud weeping from the edge of the encampment. The weeping turned into an angry murmur that spread through the entire camp.
“God is killing us…”
“He hates us…”
“We were better off in Egypt…”
“Yes. Egypt was better. We could have whatever we wanted; not this tiresome manna.”
“Oh, how I miss the food of Egypt.”
“The meat. We had so much meat, and fish. We had cucumbers, melons and leeks. Onions and garlic adorned our plates. But the meat. Our souls are shriveling without meat.”
Moses walked around the perimeter of the Levite camp and peered up and down the rows of tents of all the tribes around the encampment. Officers were lighting torches as night descended. Moses saw neighbors outside their tents complaining about their lack of meat. He saw whole families crying about the lack of meat. Angry fingers pointed at him with looks of disgust as they caught sight of Moses. All Moses saw were furious hungry faces mouthing ‘meat, meat, meat’.
Moses stormed back into his tent and did not acknowledge Joshua. He fell on his knees and covered his tearing eyes with his hands. Then with palms outwards he looked up and cried out:
“Why, God? What have I done to deserve the burden of this people? Did I give birth to them, that you command me to carry them? Am I to be a nursemaid and carry them as a suckling child to the Promised Land?” Moses stood up, with his head still looking through the roof of his tent. “From where will I get meat to feed an entire nation? They cry, weep and plead ‘Give us meat!’” Moses paced in his small tent narrowly missing Joshua’s table holding a scroll and a candle. “God, I can no longer bear this people by myself. The burden is too heavy.” Moses raised his fist heavenward, tears streaming down his face. “God, if this is my fate, kill me. If I have ever found favor in Your eyes, let me not continue with this wretchedness.”
Moses stood still, closed his eyes and bent his head. Joshua stared at him. Moses stood still for a few moments, his shoulders hunched. He opened his eyes. “Assemble the elders to the Tabernacle.” He commanded. Joshua bowed, “Immediately, my Master,” and departed quickly.
Moses left the tent and walked slowly towards the Tabernacle courtyard. He could still hear the murmuring and see the looks of distaste all around the camp. They stand in front of their tents and complain, Moses thought. I remember when I walked by in the past they stood in front of their tents in awe. The divine radiance shone so brightly from my face that I had to wear a veil. My anger has extinguished that light. I hope the sages can help me with my burden.
Moses reached the center of the courtyard and turned around to face the entrance. The sages quickly filled up the courtyard. Moses whispered to his brother Aaron while the sages assembled. The Levites present moved to the edges of the courtyard, clasping their hands in front of them, looking at each other for answers.
Moses nodded as he counted seventy sages, representatives of all twelve tribes.
“I can no longer carry the burden of the Children of Israel alone,” Moses announced. “God has commanded that I share the burden with you, leaders of Israel. Are you prepared for this responsibility, for this sacrifice?”
“Yes,” almost all the sages responded in unison.
“Excuse me, our Master Moses,” a tall judge from the tribe of Reuven said. “What is involved beyond our current duties of judging? What sacrifice does this involve?”
“God will pass some of the spirit that he has bestowed onto me, to each of you,” Moses replied. “You will each be given a measure of prophecy, of divine insight that you can impart to our people. I should no longer be the only source of their attention or complaints. I warn you, though, that it is a heavy burden that shall accompany you the rest of your lives. Do you accept this?”
“Yes,” they replied.
Moses closed his eyes and raised his arms. His scowl melted. The air above the Tabernacle shimmered. It radiated a bright white light. The light moved over the head of Moses. Moses’ face shone as brightly as it had in the past. Slowly, tendrils of light spread from the incandescent sphere over Moses. The tendrils reached each of the seventy sages. It caressed their heads. In turn, the face of each sage radiated gentle light. The light from Moses’ face was softened. He stood straight, the hunch gone, a kind smile on his face.
Seventy faces smiled back, as seventy shoulders slightly hunched.
* * * * * *
Numbers Chapter 11
1 And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp. 2 And the people cried unto Moses; and Moses prayed unto the Lord, and the fire abated. 3 And the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burnt among them. 4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: ‘Would that we were given flesh to eat! 5 We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.’—
10 And Moses heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; and Moses was displeased. 11 And Moses said unto the Lord: ‘Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in Thy sight, that Thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? 12 Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth, that Thou shouldest say unto me: Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou didst swear unto their fathers? 13 Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they trouble me with their weeping, saying: Give us flesh, that we may eat. 14 I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me. 15 And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in Thy sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.’
16 And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with thee. 17 And I will come down and speak with thee there; and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.
24 And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the Tent. 25 And the Lord came down in the cloud, and spoke unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders; and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.
I have always been hesitant to write a direct story of Moses, as in the Torah and our tradition he is often seen as superhuman, or at least the most saintly and perfect human in our history. This week’s biblical reading however shows a very human Moses filled with a very natural and understandable despair that people can relate to. For those that might take offense, read the biblical text first and then get back to me.