והאספסוף אשר בקרבו התאוו תאוה וישובו ויבכו גם בני ישראל ויאמרו מי יאכילנו בשר. (Nm 11:4)
The nation resumes its travels to the Land of Canaan and faces the first of many challenging episodes as it wanders through the desert. The people feel alone, cut off from civilization. The excitement and activity that kept them busy in the Sinai area have passed. They are anxious and concerned about their future. This unhappiness and discontent is encouraged by the rabble that wanders among them. This rabble develops cravings and incites the people to complain and demand that Moshe provide them with a meat diet.
The rabble that fanned the discontent can be identified by analyzing the word אספסוף. This rabble, the אספסוף, was an organized group of people who joined the Israelites when they left Egypt. They were not part of the nation in Egypt and remained a separate group after the Exodus, even though they had been brought into the midst/קרבו of the Israelites.
The word אספסוף is composed of two roots א-ס-ף/to gather and ס-פ-ף/to enter. They were gathered and they entered, but the double root indicates that this population was never really absorbed into the nation. This idea is additionally emphasized by the word קרבו from the root ק-ר-ב, which means "to come close." While the rabble might be close to the Israelites, at no time were they integrated into the people.
The root א-ס-ף means "to gather" and the root ס-פ-ף means "to enter".
The rabble begins its agitation after the unfortunate incident of the מתאוננים, the so- called mourners, those Jews so unhappy with their plight that they considered themselves "dead." The reflexive form indicates that the mourning was self-induced, and not true mourning for an authentic tragedy. These Jews felt themselves cut off from the rest of the world and found no comfort in the fact that God’s presence was with them through the Mishkan and the ענני כבוד, the cloud of God’s honor. Although the threat of God’s punishment terminated their original protests, they continued to complain and were therefore ripe for the agitation of the rabble.
The word מתאוננים is from the root א-נ-ן which means "to mourn a loss". The word ענני is from the root ע-נ-ן "to fructify through rain clouds". The roots א-נ-ן and ע-נ-ן are cognates expressing the positive and negative opposites. The word כבוד is from the root כ-ב-ד which means "to weigh." The word can also mean "to impress."
It is not unusual that a group such as this rabble can exert an influence on the entire nation. History has recorded this phenomenon repeating itself many times in the development of the Jewish nation. Israel, a small nation with a mission in the world, will accept strangers into their midst to allow these people to come closer to God and His principles. Sometimes, though, these strangers, who have been welcomed into the nation, seek to demoralize their hosts by undermining their society. In our verse, the rabble התאוו תאוה, "faked" a desire for meat (בשר), and they projected this desire onto an unsuspecting but receptive populace. Here, again, it is the reflexive form of the verb that makes things clear. The use of the reflexive form of the verb indicates that they induced their cravings and made themselves desire meat.
The words התאוו תאוה both stem from the root א-ו-ה which means "to crave". The word בשר is from the root ב-ש-ר which means "to cover" and refers to the flesh that covers the body.
The people repeated/וישובו their earlier tactic of tearful complaint/ויבכו, something that has just recently earned them a Godly reprimand in the form of a fire that consumed one end part of the camp.
The word וישובו is from the root ש-ו-ב which means "to return" and repeat. The word ויבכו is from the root ב-כ-ה which means "to cry" due an inner or outer impulse.
Israel had been given the Torah just a short while ago. The nation had not, as yet, been able to internalize its values. The maturing of the nation would take time. But even when it matured, it would be susceptible to the manipulation of small groups whose selfish goals are to undermine the people’s relationship to God.Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.