Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Common Ground — In the Parasha and at the Protests (21)

The Gathering of the Manna, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440, Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Wikipedia

This is my 21st consecutive blog post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

This week, in Be’ha’alotekha, the Israelites are sick of manna and experiencing a deep craving for meat. They insist that they were better off in Egypt, where they ate fish for free, and cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Numbers 11:4-6).

God is furious and sends a fire that ravages the outskirts of the Israelite camp. Moses intercedes and the fire dies down. But the burden of mediating between God and Israel has become too great for Moses to bear (Numbers 11:1-3, 11).

Using imagery that reflects powerfully on both him and God, Moses demands, Did I conceive this people, did I bear them, that you should tell me to carry them at my breast as a nurse carries a baby (v. 12)? Where am I meant to get meat to feed all these people (v. 13)?

God’s immediate response is to help Moses. God tells Moses to gather 70 elders of whom he has experience as leaders and elders of the people, and he promises to redistribute between the 70 the spirit that had formerly rested on Moses alone (Numbers 11:16-17).

Less positively, in a biblical equivalent of the King Midas phenomenon, God promises to send so many quails that the Israelites will find the mere sight of them sickening. He dispatches a wind that sweeps the birds from the sea and strews them throughout the camp and a day’s walk beyond its borders, two cubits (about a meter) deep on the ground. The people try to gather them up, but while the meat is still between their teeth, God punishes them again, this time with a severe plague (Numbers 11:18-19, 31-34).

Until this year, I’ve read these verses as a nightmare situation. So much anger, so much frustration, so much resentment, so much ingratitude. But in comparison with Israel’s current political crisis, the time of the manna and quail was paradise.

First, there was a crisis of leadership, but also a solution. God allowed Moses to identify 70 men who would share the burden with him, selected on the basis of their prior leadership experience. God ensured the success of the operation by imbuing all 70 with a portion of the spirit previously invested just in Moses. An unnamed young man, together with Moses’ eventual successor, Joshua, urged Moses to keep control over the 70. They told him to restrain two men, Eldad and Medad, who had remained in the camp and spoken in ecstasy there while the other 68 gathered around the Tent. But Moses isn’t interested in personal power. If only the Lord imbued everyone with his spirit, he responded (Numbers 11:29).

Israel’s current crisis began with a leader facing corruption charges fighting to stay in power and out of jail. Over many years, he made one of the biggest mistakes that a leader can make. He consistently refused to share power and held back – or worse – potential successors. When he needed to build a coalition, therefore, he had no pool of 70 experienced leaders to draw from. He was forced to fill government posts with political or religious extremists with whom even he had nothing in common.

Second, Moses’ allusion to a nursing mother – even if it was to make the point that he can’t be one – shows empathy and sensitivity to Israel’s needs. He didn’t tell the people, grow up, I can’t be your wet nurse. He told God, you gave birth to this people, now, like a mother, you need to provide a steady source of sustenance. Again, as when he interceded to stop the fire that burned the perimeter of the camp, Moses was on the people’s side.

Israel’s present-day leaders show no interest in nurturing its citizens and guaranteeing their long-term sustenance. On the contrary, laws intended to buy the loyalty of certain coalition members are threatening to cut off the country’s food supply, that is, its economy. These leaders are not on the side of the people. They are for themselves.

Third, Moses emphasizes that all the people need help, not just the elite, or his supporters (did he have any?), or his own family and friends. In the space of four verses, he uses the phrase ‘all this people’ four times. Moses asks God why he’s placed the burden of all this people on him (Numbers 11:11). He asks, rhetorically, if he conceived all this people (v. 12). He demands to know where he can be expected to find meat for all this people (v. 13). And he insists that he cannot carry all this people alone (v. 14).

Israel’s protest movement, together with polls taken since the election, have shown that the majority of Israelis are against the government’s proposed judicial reforms. In pushing them through, our leaders are not even trying to serve the needs of the entire country, all this people.

Fourth, and most important for me in this context, all the Israelites had the same complaint and the same desire. They were all sick of manna, they all wanted to eat meat, and they all missed Egypt. In these respects at least, they were united.

Israelis today are far from united in their needs and desires. And it’s not just a matter of left versus right, or religious versus secular. Our differences cut to the very core of what it means to be a people.

Some of us see the erosion of Israel’s democracy as the beginning of the end.

Some of us don’t care at all for democracy. We want a theocratic state, run by religious leaders according to Jewish law.

Some of us want to expel Palestinians from the West Bank, at least the uncooperative ones, maybe all of them.

Some of us want to leave the nearly 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, but formalize the rule of law over them, even though to do so would end Israel’s claim to being a democratic state (but again, some of us don’t value democracy).

Some of us want the Occupation to end with a Palestinian state.

How simple life was when we all yearned for the same thing. How hard it is to articulate our wants and needs when the differences between us seem starker week by week. All the more, those of us demonstrating for democracy must seek common ground, challenging as that is in the divided Israel of our days.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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