Moshe said, “I am in the midst of a people of six hundred
thousand foot-soldiers. Yet You say I shall give them meat?…Can sheep and
cattle be slaughtered for them and suffice for them?”…Hashem said to Moshe,
“Is the hand of Hashem limited?”
Rashi: R. Akiva said that all should be understood according to its plain
sense. “There are six hundred thousand foot-soldiers. You say that I shall
give them meat? Are there sufficient sheep and cattle to satisfy them? Who
will provide for them?” Questioning G-d’s ability to provide was a sin on
Moshe’s part, but he was not punished for it, because his remark was not
made in public. R. Shimon disagreed. He argued that it is unthinkable that
Moshe, with all his closeness to Hashem, could have said such a thing.
Rather, Moshe argued, “Shall I give them meat for a month, only so that you
will kill them afterwards, so that their eating will last them an eternity?
Would this bring praise to You?” Hashem responded, “If I do not give them
what they ask for, they will assume that I lack the ability to do so. Would
you prefer that people conclude that G-d is limited?”
Maharal: Ramban questions R. Shimon’s approach. Firstly, his explication of
the pesukim is forced. Additionally, he would have the Torah act in a manner
very different from how it handles the sins of the great. Ordinarily, the
Torah disguises them; they have to be unearthed by probing beneath the
surface meaning. Here, according to R. Shimon, the plain meaning of the text
casts a large shadow on the actions of the tzadik. Only by trawling for
deeper meaning do we find an exculpatory explanation! This is the opposite
of what we find in similar situations.
I (Maharal) do not agree. R. Shimon’s comments flow easily from the pesukim.
Furthermore, no explanation need show any doubt in Moshe’s mind about
Here is what Moshe reasoned according to R. Shimon: Either Hashem was
planning to offer the people meat through miraculous means, or through
natural ones. He therefore conveyed the following to Him: “You’ve committed
Yourself to provide meat to a huge population. Surely You could do this in
an instant, miraculously. I have no doubt about that. But I certainly hope
that this is not the case! The people do not deserve such a miracle. I
realize that, on the other hand, every miracle performed for those who do
not merit one exacts a huge price. The miracle is immediately followed by a
display of Divine wrath. Were You to work a miracle for them, the
consequence would be their destruction.
“Rather, You are hopefully planning to provide for them within the
limitations of natural law. If so, we have a problem. There is no way to
stay within a framework of Nature, and still be able to satisfy the needs of
such a large number of people!”
R. Shimon sees the pesukim themselves pointing to this interpretation. Moshe
speaks of the enormity of the task. Is it possible that enough animals can
be “slaughtered for them?” Moshe asks. The words “for them” imply that they
will be for their benefit. In other words, if they are to be granted what
they ask for, there is insufficient supply in what is available without
miraculous intervention. Working a miracle for them is unthinkable, because
it would be followed by some show of midas hadin. As R. Shimon adds, this
would make a very poor impression on any observer. It would be the
equivalent of telling a donkey to eat the food in front of it, and that its
head would immediately thereafter be severed.
Hashem responds that giving them food and cutting off their heads is
preferable to shortening Hashem’s arm. Moshe was wrong about His plan.
Hashen did in fact intend to grant their request for meat through a miracle
performed in Divine anger, rather than provide for them with love, but
through Nature. Taking into account the harshness of Divine judgment, the
upshot of the affair would still be a kiddush Hashem, not the opposite. When
it comes to Man’s very understanding of Who G-d is, and what He can do,
there is no wiggle room allowable without harming the purpose of Man’s
journey on this earth. Presenting an accurate view of what Hashem is (at
least the little that we are capable of understanding) ultimately has to be
a kiddush Hashem.
This approach is preferable to the one offered by Ramban. Ramabn sees Moshe
assuming that the meat would come from a natural source, because he ruled
out a miraculous one. Miracles, he assumed, only occur when Hashem wishes to
shower a recipient with his chesed – or when midas hadin demands retribution
against sinners. Since neither of these two seemed to apply to the Jewish
people at the moment, Moshe reasoned that Hashem was planning to find a
non-miraculous supply of meat. Moshe balked at this plan. How could it be
that enough meat could be found? Hashem responded by reminding him that the
hand of HBKH is not limited. He can do whatever He wishes.
This is not satisfying, however. What did Hashem mean by saying that His
hand is not limited? If He meant that He has many options within the natural
world to accomplish the unexpected, even without resorting to miraculous
overturning of the laws of Nature, then we are back where we started! It is
inconceivable that Moshe would not understand this on his own! If He meant
that He lacks no ability to provide meat through a miracle, then why would
He speak of Moshe limiting the hand of G-d? Moshe did not deny that Hashem
could provide meat miraculously – he merely assumed that Hashem would not
work a miracle for the Jewish people, feed them meat for a month, and then
punish them with death. Miracles were supposed to be reserved for
manifestations of genuine chesed!
Rather, it seems to me that Ramban’s pshat is really R. Akiva’s position,
who reads the pesukim close to their simple meaning. R. Akiva is not saying
that Moshe doubted Hashem’s ability. He is saying that Moshe could not
believe that Hashem would provide meat miraculously to sinners. Miracles are
justified when Klal Yisrael follows Hashem’s will and dictates. When His
servants are treated to supernatural protection, Hashem’s heavenly court is
honored and empowered, as it were, thereby. Miracles performed for a
rebellious Klal Yisrael, however, bring shame and disgrace to His court.
Moshe sinned, according to R. Akiva, in failing to comprehend that Hashem
would justify miraculous intervention to protect Divine honor where
necessary. Even if preceded by some sin or indiscretion on the part of the
Jewish people, a miraculous response by Him can be the source of a Kiddush
Hashem. Observers can still note that, with all His love for us, He does not
relax the high standards, the expectation He has of us to understand what is
humanly possible to understand about His greatness. Moshe, who had
previously never heard this position from G-d, sinned in failing to
comprehend this truism about Hashem’s readiness to perform miracles. It was
an understandable sin, since he had never been taught otherwise by Hashem.
It is to this, seemingly innocuous point, that R. Shimon reacts. This
cannot be! Moshe, describes as trustworthy throughout G-d’s abode, could not
fail to comprehend this on his own. R. Shimon therefore responds with his
explanation of the exchange between Moshe and Hashem. As explained above,
Moshe did not doubt that a miracle could be forthcoming under the
circumstances – he thought that Hashem’s own words indicated, however, that
it would not.
The bottom line, it would seem, is for us to realize how great Hashem’s
ability is to provide what He wants to give us, even within the framework of
the natural order of things.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar 11:22