God’s family problems, labor relations

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This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotcha, Numbers 8:1 – 12:16.

We see several aspects of God in this parsha, some of which are comforting and some of which are disturbing. There is the image of a spouse as well as the image of an employer. As we will see, God as described in this parsha is a reasonable employer, but a very angry spouse.


First, let us look at God as a compassionate employer. In this parsha, the Levites participate in a purification ritual in order to serve in the Tent of Meeting. Here are the terms of service: “From 25 years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of the Meeting; but at the age of 50 they shall retire from the work force …. They may assist their brother Levites … by standing guard, but they shall perform no more labor” (Numbers 8:23).

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could begin working at age 25 and have less demanding work after age 50?
And then we have Moses himself, who comes to God when the people begin complaining about the food (manna) and start asking for meat. Moses is quite dramatic, saying, “Why did you deal ill with your servant … that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me… Kill me rather, I beg you…” (Numbers 11:11-15).

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Even though this is a complaint that begins harshly, with an accusation: “Why did you deal ill with your servant?” and ends with melodrama: “Kill me,” the Lord listens to the truth in the simple statement “… it is too much for me” and responds with kindness and generosity. He has Moses gather 70 elders to “take their place with you,” quite an addition to the work force.

But as a spouse who has provided manna that “tasted like rich cream” to the people in a barren desert, and who is then faced with this weeping complaint: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks” (Numbers 11: 4-7), God behaves harshly.


God basically answers, “So you want meat, do you?  I will give you meat … until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you” (Numbers 11:19). Perhaps God is hoping that the people will repent when they hear these words, but they do not. So God sends flocks of quail that pile up. Then we learn that, “ 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” (Numbers 11: 33). This is such a different response from the Lord’s response to Moses that we need to ask what the differences are between the people’s complaints and Moses’.

To me, it seems that the key difference is that Moses has a legitimate complaint. It is too much for him to deal with the people alone. But the people are asking for better, or different food, in extreme ingratitude for the miraculous manna they have been given.

And there is a difference in the two relationships. The people are in a close, covenantal relationship with God, much like a marriage. Moses is considered a “faithful servant.” Perhaps some of the truth of this parsha is that it can be more difficult to treat our families with the same compassion and generosity as we do those who work for us.

Questions for discussion:

• Have you ever found it easier to treat employees better than you treat those close to you?

• How can we identify a legitimate complaint?

• What is a better way to deal with an unreasonable complaint than how God handled it? n

Rabbi Rain Zohav is spiritual advisor of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington D.C., and co-director of Educating for Spirituality.

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