And Moses said to God, ‘Why have you afflicted your servant and why have I not found favour in your eyes, that you lay the burden of this entire people upon me?’ Numbers 11:11
The Jewish people complained that the manna which God had provided was insufficient compared to the delicacies of fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they had enjoyed in Egypt.
Yet this was not the first time the Jewish people had erred. At what should have been the most intimate moment between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, they committed the gravest of all transgressions by worshipping the Golden Calf. At that time Moses had reacted very differently by praying for the people and pleading with God not to destroy them.
In this case however, while the Jewish people’s complaint about the manna may have seemed a little churlish and impolite, Moses’ reaction appears to have been out of proportion.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik (d. 1993) explains that while the sin of the Golden calf was an idolatrous act, there were mitigating circumstances. The people were frightened that Moses had not returned and so sought to replace him with another leader. While it certainly deserved punishment, their idolatry was at the very least an understandable if not primitive attempt to satisfy the need for leadership and guidance.
In contrast, when the people complained about the manna and cried for meat, their behaviour was driven by a craving for the unrestrained satisfaction of every physical desire (Yoma 75a). This explains Moses’ response. Since the foundation of Torah is for man to practise restraint, their call for meat was therefore an even greater rebellion than idolatry. We learns that in essence the Torah promotes the most crucial virtue for all societies to emulate: the power of delayed gratification.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.