by Beth Ornstein
June 11, 2011
B’ha’a lot’kha explores the theme of journeys. It begins with finalization of preparations for the journey from Sinai and describes the difficulties encountered as the journey begins.
The rule set forth in Numbers 8:23 requires the Levites to participate in the workforce in the service of the tent of meeting once they attain age 25. However, at age 50, they must retire from the workforce, though they may continue to assist by standing guard.
As we enter different phases of our journeys through life, we take on different activities or approach old ones differently.
Where am I now on my journey during the 4th chai phase of my life? I’m spending a lot of time contemplating sustainability. Through the process of formally becoming a bat mitzvah, I am working specifically on sustaining my individual spirituality. But I also contemplate my connection to the sustainability of our culture and our planet. It is through this lens that I read Chapter 11 of this parasha as it describes the people’s gluttonous craving for meat just after they began their desert journey from Sinai.
They whined: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to.”
God was enraged and instructed Moses to tell the people that He would “provide meat for them to eat until it comes out of their nostrils and becomes loathsome to them.” Ultimately “A wind from the Lord” started up, swept quail from the sea, strewing them over and around the camp in deep piles. “The people set to gathering quail all that day and night and all the next day. The meat was still between their teeth, nor yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague.” After this, the people continued on their journey.
This story was part of the triennial reading last May. At that time we were all absorbed in news of the BP oil spill crisis, and I reflected on the apparent parallel between the story of the oil spill and the story in the parasha. The meat that much of the world, and especially we Americans have whined for is oil. We want more and more of it, no matter that it is a non-renewable and limited resource. Well, we were overwhelmed with oil in the Gulf of Mexico. A year after the spill, the number of cleanup workers had fallen from a peak of 48,000 when BP’s gushing well was capped in July to about 2,000, and BP had just agreed to provide $1 billion toward early restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico to address injuries to natural resources caused by the spill.
But, the parallels between the stories go beyond the whining and the consequences. In both stories there is a failure to look beyond our wants to our needs for sustainable living. The Hebrews could not live sustainably by eating fish or other meat while wandering the desert – all they needed was manna and Torah.
According to Midrash Sifrei, the people’s discontent and nostalgic memory of “free fish” reflected their struggle with the new post-Sinai burden of morality. Back in Egypt the people were “free” of mitzvot, but now they were journeying into an unknown future of freedom.
In the Kolel Parasha Study for this week (http://blog.kolel.org/2011/06/parashat-behaalotecha-numbers-81-1216.html), Rabbi Michal Shekel writes:
Those who packed the junk food of nostalgic slavery won’t be able to complete the trip. And what of their descendants? More and more we pride ourselves on how careful we are in what we put into our bodies, but are we as careful in nourishing our souls? How often do we reach for the spiritual fast food fix rather than for the more nutritious but labour intensive spiritual meal?”
I hope our spiritual meals can help us learn to identify and meet our real energy needs in ways that will preserve the planet for our descendants.
I wish us all nourishing journeys.