Moses vs. Madison Avenue

How does a nation fall so fast?
The Israelites were preparing to begin the last leg of the journey to Canaan. The voyage would take three days. Food and drink would be plentiful. The people would walk on flat, soft sand. The weather would be perfect.
And then came trouble.
The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, and a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the extremes of the camp. [Numbers. 11:1]
Again, the Torah uses the word “people” rather than “Children of Israel.” In the book of Exodus, the “people” are defined as the mixed multitude, the Egyptians who joined the Israelites as they left the land of slavery. The Egyptians were responsible for the Golden Calf and now they’re back.
Who let them in? Who gave them the influence to once again bring down G-d’s children?
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?” [Numbers. 11:4]
The commentators sound puzzled: Cravings for what? The Israelites were living on miracles, whether pure water, fresh food, riches beyond imagination. The manna provided any taste desired without the need to expunge waste. No need for commodes or toilet paper, diapers or air freshener.
Do you really want meat? Can you wait three more days — 72 hours?
Of course, that was not the issue. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, says the “people” was the code word for evil. Their complaints were baseless. What they really wanted was to prevent the Jews from returning to their homeland.
Who were these troublemakers? The commentators say they comprised a range of actors. Yes, there were the Egyptian exiles. But there were those from other nations as well. They began on the outskirts of the Israelite camp, causing dissension and making promises meant to sabotage G-d’s plans for nationhood.
Eliyahu Mizrachi was the model of the Renaissance man. Born in 1455 in Constantinople, known today as Istanbul, he rose to become a scholar in Judaism and secular studies. He was a master Talmudist as well as mathematician — known as the first to formulate a way to derive the cube root. In 1995, he became the chief rabbi of the Ottoman empire, solving halachic problems for Jews and opening the door for splinter groups to return to Judaism.
The Mizrachi identifies the evil ones in the desert as the Israelite leadership. Moses and Aaron maintained their faith in G-d while those on the next rung were betraying their people. They were the elite and they sought to maintain power and profit at any cost. Incredibly, they included Aaron’s two older sons — Nadav and Avihu.
Here’s what happened: The mixed multitude were ordered by Pharoah to stop the former Jewish slaves from achieving independence. That meant either keeping them in the desert or persuading them to return to Egypt. The Egyptian exiles were aided by those from other nations — again driven by the need to stop the march toward what would be the Land of Israel.
Their allies were the traitorous Jewish leadership. First, they feared that settling Canaan would end their role and authority. They were encouraged by those who came to the Israelite encampment with all kinds of things to sell. They came with meat, vegetables, clothing. You could get anything you want.
But how do you market consumer goods to a people completely cared for by G-d? Simple, you follow Madison Avenue and create a need.
We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. [Numbers. 11:5]
The narrative adopted by the Jewish leadership was that the people never had it so good in Egypt. They had it all — well, except for the fact that the slaves had been worked to the bone. Hey, but you can’t have everything. Now, G-d is torturing us with this manna that can’t compare to Burger King.
But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.” [Numbers. 11:6]
And the hysteria spread. Moses and Aaron were inundated by complaints and threats. Protests erupted with people shouting, “We want meat!” “Give our children meat!” Not just any meat. We want quail.
The common quail migrated to Egypt and Sinai every year. These birds were easy to catch and extremely fatty. Throughout history, the European elite would expend great efforts to catch quail. England’s Queen Jane Seymour couldn’t eat enough of these fowl and her husband Henry VIII ordered his men to drop everything and bring these birds to satisfy his pregnant wife.
The Israelites dropped everything. The journey to Canaan was called off. Within three days, Moses and Aaron encountered a veritable revolt. The slogan: A quail in every pot. Moses was frantic. Where was he supposed to get meat for the millions?
G-d said he would provide, but Moses knew the cost would be disastrous. He begged G-d not to satisfy the urges of a people gone astray. But there was something greater at stake: The prospect that the Israelites would conclude that G-d was incapable of caring for His people. He could bring the manna, but He couldn’t supply the meat.
The people gathered their quail by the tons. They rushed home and began to eat. They didn’t get past the first bite.
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.  [Numbers. 11:33]
Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides, writes that the entire Jewish leadership — with the exception of Moses and Aaron — were wiped out. Their profits from the joint ventures with the gentile merchants disappeared. Madison Avenue could not conquer the Jews. In three days, the buying spree ended.
How did the Israelites fall for such an obvious ploy? Moses Ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, explains that the tragedy began earlier — when the Israelites left Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah. Nachmanides says the Jews literally fled Sinai in glee, similar to schoolchildren released from class early. The Israelites didn’t want to stay one second longer at Sinai. Maybe G-d had more commandments to give them.
G-d was not happy. He was like the father whose children couldn’t wait to leave the old man’s house. Everything G-d did was for the good of His children. Left alone, the Israelites were like free-floating atoms, with no direction and open to exploitation by their enemies.
And so, for the Jews, it was back to square one.
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.