One of the most dramatic and meaningful stories in the Torah is read this week in synagogues around the world.
It is a food-related story and it merits our attention, yet it is seldom discussed. Or depicted in movies.
The story, found in Numbers 11, describes part of the Israelites’ journey in the desert, before their thunderous encounter with God at Mount Sinai.
As you likely know, the Torah tells us that God sustained the Israelites on a diet of manna. And manna was described as similar to coriander seed. A vegan dish, to be sure.
It probably won’t shock you to learn that some of the Israelites complained about the fare and demanded meat, never mind that the manna was filling and healthy.
So who were these meat-lovers? The Torah described them, in Hebrew, as ha’asafsoof. The Jewish Publication Society translates that as “the riffraff.” Not exactly a neutral description. Just another case of the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating.
Moses, who consulted public-opinion polls long before there was Gallup, heard the riffraff and relayed their concerns to God.
If The Beet-Eating Heeb can be so bold as to paraphrase God Himself, His response was something like this:
They want meat, do they? I’ll give them some meat, alright … until it’s coming out of their nostrils.
Actually, that’s pretty close to a direct translation.
God then called forth a mighty wind that deposited quails – yes, quails – throughout the Israelites’ camp.
Fire up the barbecue!
In normal circumstances, the fat and cholesterol might have killed the riffraff, but not for a few years. God decided to cut to the chase. The Torah says:
“The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah.
Kibroth-hattaavah? That translates to, “the graves of craving.”
Did The Beet-Eating Heeb say something about the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating?
Nothing subtle here. First, God tells us explicitly, in Genesis 1:29, that we are to eat plants and only plants. Then, as if He hadn’t made His point perfectly clear, meat-eaters are described as “riffraff” who are struck down by a plague and buried in the “graves of craving.”
Don’t get The Beet-Eating Heeb wrong. He would never refer to today’s meat-eaters as riffraff. That’s a little too harsh.
And BEH would be the first to acknowledge that there is another, albeit complementary, interpretation of this story. Some theologians say the Divine wrath was provoked simply because some Israelites were not content with God’s beneficence. They wanted more. That the “more” was “meat” is not the key to the story, per this interpretation.
However, viewed in the context of the entire Torah, the fact that meat was involved appears significant. Very significant.
Consider this: In Numbers 11:4, the Hebrew word used to describe the riffraff’s desire for meat is “ta’avah.” JPS translates that as “gluttonous craving.”
Now fast forward to Deuteronomy 12:20, when the Israelites are getting their final instructions before entering the Land of Israel. They are told that they can eat meat, if they have the urge to do so. Well, not urge, exactly. Here again, the desire for meat is described as “ta’aveh.” A gluttonous craving.
So what’s going on here? Is the Beet-Eating Heeb crazy, or does it seem that God would prefer that we not kill animals for food?
To put this in contemporary perspective, God has given us an Earth with an incredible bounty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains to sustain us. Yet we succumb to our “ta’avah” and kill billions of animals a year.
As we recall from the recently observed holiday of Shavuot, it’s worth noting that the Israelites were only deemed spiritually worthy of receiving the Torah after they had returned to a diet of manna, not meat.
Interesting story, eh?