Chapter 11 of the book of Bemidbar marks a sharp turning point in the trajectory of the story. The previous chapters emphasized the holiness of the Israelite camp and their closeness to G-d, but chapter 11 begins a series of sins that will lead to a distancing from G-d and 40 years of wandering in the desert. This transition begins with the verse, “the people were ke’mitoninim (like mitoninim), evil in the ears of G-d.” The word mitoninim is very unusual, and the commentators grapple both with what it means as well as why the people are described as “like” mitoninim as opposed to actually being mitoninim.
The Ramban explains that mitoninim comes from a root word that means suffering; the Jews began complaining as if they were suffering greatly, despite the fact that G-d was providing all their needs (literally, manna from heaven). The Abarbanel believes that the proper root word is one that means to find a pretext; the people were trying to find a pretext in order to speak against G-d. Still, why does it say “like trying to find a pretext” as opposed to simply “trying to find a pretext”?
He explains that the people’s challenges and statements against G-d were never stated in an outright fashion but instead were expressed through jokes and snide comments. The “ke” (“like”) illustrates an important reality. Offhanded comments can be as corrosive as outright attacks, and are arguably more dangerous because they are more acceptable to say. If a child constantly hears negative comments about a person, institution or G-d himself, even if they are ostensibly jokes, it will almost certainly erode their respect for the subject of the jokes. The jokes are likely to have a similar effect on the speaker as well. This teaches us how careful we must be to avoid even joking speech that will be damaging, and instead use words that will be rewarding.