In Chapter 11 of Numbers, this week’s parasha Be’ha’alotecha (quite possibly the hardest parasha to pronounce), the people start kvetching. Again. About food.
They’ve just gotten on the move, finally, finally! No sooner than they get out on the road, they start complaining, not “Are we there yet” but “I’m hungry! I want meat! I want all that great food we had in Egypt, like fish and cucumbers, melons and leeks.” Now, when they first started complaining bitterly to God, a “fire of Adonai” broke out against them (11:1) on the outskirts of the camp. “I heard you, I heard you”, God seems to be saying. So the people complain to Moses; it seemed safer. And indeed, Moses got God to tamp down the fire.
And now we get one of my favorite words in the Torah: asafsuf. Go ahead, try saying it….say it a couple of times, it’s fun. The text reads, “The asafsuf in their midst felt a gluttonous craving” (11:4)
But who were the asafsuf? As you may guess, the commentators have lots to say about it. Many agree that the word comes from the root a-s-f, to gather, to add.
Rashi (11th c France) said they were the mixed multitude, including the non-Israelites who came with the Israelites out of Egypt. Rashi doesn’t like the asafsuf; he said they were a bad influence on us. Ibn Ezra (11th c Spain) said they were “riffraff”, they didn’t really belong to the Israelites. Were they rabble-rousers? Or, were they, as Plaut (20th c Canada) says, just the lowest of the low rung in the group, the poorest among Egyptian society, who added themselves to the Israelites to get a taste of freedom? Whoever they were, they managed to get quite a reaction from the rest of the Israelites. The people all started clamoring for meat. Meat. MEAT!
But was it really all about the meat? Perhaps the people were complaining about the lack of another kind of sustenance, something else the people were feeling was lacking in their spiritual diet. It was about faith, too. Doubt and uncertainty spread through the camp, and Moses’ leadership (and God’s commitment to the people) were threatened by the thing that can undermine it the fastest: lack of faith.
Any journey that requires faith is the most susceptible when that faith falters. The asafsuf’s railing against God and Moses may have made people question their faith in the mission, but they also were in a position to shine a light on the existence of the doubt in the first place. That was important. Moses and God both needed to know that the people were in a fragile place, ready to turn and run (again) and that they weren’t as ready to take on the challenges that lay ahead. Torah once again teaches us that sometimes we need that voice in our heads or out in our communities to bring about change, and let us know when we’re losing some of our faith.
When you know what you’re missing, whether it’s meat or faith, you know where to begin finding it again.