One of the questions people like to ask is “If you could eat only more thing for the rest of your life what would it be?” That's a tough question to answer because obviously we like different types of food, but when all is said and done for me the answer is olives. Green or black, I love olives. I can go through a whole jar in a single sitting and if I have to choose one type of food for the rest of my life then it would have to be olives.
The Israelites in the wilderness weren’t asked this question, but they were only given one type of food to eat, manna. In that inhospitable environment God’s manna was the only way for the people to survive, and one might expect that the Israelites would be grateful; but in this week's Torah portion we read about the Israelites complaining. ‘The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”’ (Num. 11:4-6).
We might think that slavery and suffering would be the primary ways in which the Israelites would remember Egypt; but now just over a year after they left they think back to it more fondly, remembering the food that they ate and exhibiting a lack of gratitude for the manna that God has provided. Moses is upset with the people and God gets very angry, so angry that God instructs Moses to tell the people: ‘Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before Adonai and saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ Adonai will give you meat and you shall eat. 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. 11:18-20).
In this moment we see that the people might have pushed God a little bit too far, and God's response is to give them exactly what they wanted – meat and lots of it, so that eventually there will be too much. We can imagine that after a month of eating just meat they will grow tired and exasperated with it.
As we read the story there are a number of lessons that we can take from it. One of them is that we need to be grateful for what we have. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors (4:1), we read: “Who is rich? The person who is happy with their lot.” It is clear that the Israelites don't seem to have understood the idea that we need to be grateful when we have enough food to put on our plates and when we're able to survive; especially in an oppressive environment like the wilderness. With an attitude of gratitude perhaps we would not have got to the point of complaining.
But when we reach that point of complaining it's important to remember that too much of a good thing, no matter how much we might crave it, is never good for us. This story is a cautionary tale about moderation and gratitude, a lesson for the Israelites in the wilderness and one which I'm sure all of us today can benefit from as well.