“And the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.”
– Numbers 21:4, JPS, 1917 Tanach
B’nei Yisrael, as a result of circumstances that seemed beyond their control, grew impatient along the journey. By taking a roundabout way around the country of Edom, they felt they were moving further away from their destination . Their frustration manifested in the form of complaining; yet, the question may be asked, did they really have anything to complain about? What was the nature of their complaint. The Torah records that “the people spoke against G-d, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.'” (Numbers 21:5, JPS 1917 Tanach).
Commentary explains that they were dissatisfied with the the mode of their existence. In other words, they were discontent not only with the bread and water that H’Shem provided for them, rather, also with the means that they received this provision. In particular, R. Bachya explains, that their complaint disparaged the manna, and the water from the “well of Miriam” that H’Shem had provided for them on their travels, because they were dependent each and every day on H’Shem to give what was necessary for their daily existence. This is in comparison to other nations, who were able to store up a supply of bread and water that was always available.
It was as if they were really saying that the bread and water they received was not in the manner that they would have preferred. Moreover, the manna did not seem substantial enough for the rigours of the wilderness that they had to endure. Yet, H’Shem provided for them on a daily basis, in order to test their faith in him; for they would have to trust that on the morrow, they would be able to collect the manna in the morning, during the weekdays. Of course, on the sixth day, they received a double portion for that day and Shabbat. They were tired of this type of day to day existence, and seemingly yearned for more security in their material needs.
Because of their complaints against Him, and the heavenly provision of manna, G-d sent fiery serpents that bit the people. When they acknowledged their wrong perspective, H’Shem told Moshe to make a copper serpent, and place it on a pole. “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, as Rashi comments, when they looked up towards the serpent, they turned their hearts to their Father in Shomayim (Heaven).
In parashas Balak, the “prophet of the nations,” Balaam is hired by Balaak, King of Moab to curse B’nei Yisrael. The concern of the Moabites was that they could potentially be attacked by the Children of Israel. They had heard of how B’nei Yisrael defeated Sichon and Og, two Ammonite kings, and they feared for themselves. Specifically, Torah records that when they saw the multitude of B’nei Yisrael, they were overwhelmed with dread. The Hebrew word translated in this pasuk (verse) is koots. This is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians felt about the Children of Israel, generations ago, when they saw that “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12, JPS).
Balaam’s three attempts to curse Israel are thwarted by H’Shem. Each time, he and Balaak bring seven offerings to H’Shem, hoping to appease Him; yet, H’Shem is adamantly opposed to Balaam’s intent to curse Israel. Balaam was told by G-d even before he set out on his journey to Moab, with the princes sent by Balak, “‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed'” (Numbers 22:12, JPS).
Yet, eventually, in response to the persistence of Balak’s emmisaries, G-d said to Balaam, “‘rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do’” (Numbers 22:20, JPS). Later, on the journey to Moab, Balaam was reminded by the angel of H’Shem, “only speak the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Numbers 22:35, JPS). So, not only did H’Shem prevent Balaam from cursing Israel, He also caused Balaam to bless Israel instead.
Reflecting on the complaints of the Children of Israel, concerning the provision of manna and water that H’Shem provided for them, it is interesting to note that they were not somehow prevented from complaining; rather, they were rebuked after the fact. If there was some way that H’Shem could prevent us from complaining in life, then, perhaps, instead of words of negativity, we would speak positive words each and every time. Our intended curses would be transformed into blessings. “Set a guard, O L-RD, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, JPS).