Be-Ha’alotekha

The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. – Numbers 11:33

Where people crave meat in the Torah, violence is often imminent.

Meat is first permitted to human beings after the Flood. The survivors and their descendants may partake of it with the qualifications that the animal from which it is detached must not be alive and the blood must be removed before its flesh can be consumed. Lest the killing of animals for their meat lessen the value placed on human life, severe sanctions are imposed on anyone who sheds their own or another’s blood. (Gen. 9:3-6)

The rivalry between our forefather, Jacob, and his brother, Esau, takes a potentially murderous turn when Esau returns famished from an unsuccessful hunting trip. Jacob uses his brother’s hunger to his advantage, feeding Esau in exchange for his birthright. When their aged father desires meat, Jacob acquires Isaac’s blessing while Esau is out seeking a wild animal to kill. Years later, Jacob still fears for his life when he sees Esau accompanied by 400 hundred men while traveling with his household and herds from Paddan-aram to Canaan. (Gen. 25:27-34; 27; 32:4-24).

No sooner had the Israelites left Mount Sinai and resumed traveling in the wilderness, than they began complaining bitterly (Num. 11:1). The first detailed conflict originates with a group that develops a gluttonous craving (Num. 11:4) for meat. Discontent soon spreads throughout the camp. Their complaint that the wilderness diet of manna compares so poorly with their memories of eating fish and vegetables that they wish they had never left Egypt, angers God once more. When Moses intercedes on their behalf, God agrees to provide meat and satisfy the people’s complaint, as well as the instigators’ craving, but at great cost: You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you (Num. 11:20). Within two days, all who gorge themselves on the meat are dead.

Rabbi Yannai commented regarding the willingness of his contemporaries to forfeit the cost and effort required for a meat meal: That is the way it is with humankind, when a person buys a pound of meat in the marketplace, how much trouble he goes to, how much he puts himself out because of it, until he succeeds in cooking it! Another midrash teaches: In this world, a person who wants to rejoice when a festival comes, gets meat and cooks it in his house…But no sooner does he begin to eat, having first dealt out a portion to each of his children, than he is apt to hear, “My brother’s portion is bigger than mine,” and so even in the midst of his joy, he is vexed. (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, 8:1; S2:8)

We learn from the dangers associated with craving meat to know and exercise restraint when it comes to eating. Further, we must take care not to use food to sow or deepen conflict that the breads, desserts and other desirable dishes that we place on the table are a source of peace for all who partake.

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