How many revolutions were fueled by demands for affordable staples like bread? The current crisis in the Ukraine is affecting a global famine that is already raising the temperatures of despair and demand. Food is often the private/public pain-point, but its not just nourishment that’s at stake - it’s dignity and equity. Chapter 11 kicks off protest season - first for meat, then for new prophetic visions for a better life. It begins with fury from the fringes. The protests begin with those named with a slur - ‘riffraff’ - a 15th century English word (before it became the brand of a a popular rapper) used to translate this perplexing Hebrew word that shows up in the Bible only once:
וְהָֽאסַפְסֻף֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּקִרְבּ֔וֹ הִתְאַוּ֖וּ תַּאֲוָ֑ה וַיָּשֻׁ֣בוּ וַיִּבְכּ֗וּ גַּ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ מִ֥י יַאֲכִלֵ֖נוּ בָּשָֽׂר׃
“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites joined, wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!” (Ba 11:4)
The Hebrew word ‘Asafsof’ literally means ‘the ones who gather at the end’. Other translators used ‘mob’ or ‘mixed multitude’. Imagine this well ordered camp, as it now begins to travel, each tribe with its flag, marching in order. But what about the stragglers, and what about the others who joined in Egypt and who were not Hebrews? What about the ones like Shlomit’s son we read about back in Leviticus who was only half Hebrew? The back of the camp is where the rumbles start, often for good reason. Who gets left behind?
The desire for meat is soon followed with a longing for fish and garlic, all the delicacies of Egypt, nostalgia for anything but the reality of daily manna no matter how miraclous and a journey to a far away promised land. The rest of the people join the protest. Perhaps without being part of collective vision and purpose - protest will always rise and there’s always enough sparks to catch people’s needs on fire.
Blaming the foreigners or those on the bottom of the social ladder for unrest or injustice is not a new trope, used often in nationalist propaganda. Is this what’s happening here when Torah blames the ‘Riff-raff’ for the meat riot that will result in Moses almost quitting, and a mysterious feast of quails that kills the protesters and all who join them with the meat still in their mouths? The chapter will end with mass burial pits known as the ‘graves of desire'. How is this story about each one of us?
In one redemptive read, some sages suggested that it’s not the foreigners who started the riot - it was the seventy elders, nominated again midway this chapter to offer Moses leadership support in the face of increasing tensions among the people. It isn’t the ones in the back who challenge the prophecy - it’s those already on top. Between the lines here we can witness the unravelng of order, the wildenress is creeping in beneath the flags.
Where in today’s tired world are the ones who still have the energy and rage to tell truth to power? Who in your world, in your inner reality, echos the voices that are left behind and deserve better attention, respect and a seat at the table, even when the meat is scarce?
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