The Longing – Parshat Beha’alotcha

The Longing – Parshat Beha’alotcha

Now is the summer of our discontent.

For the next five weeks, we will be touring through some of the darkest chapters in the Israelites’ long desert journey. And one theme will dominate these parshot above all: dissatisfaction.

Next week we will see the scouts’ report that the promised land is not all it was promised to be. The week after that comes the famous mutiny of Korach and his crew against Moses and Aaron. Then, when the people get so thirsty they wish they were dead, Moses will lose his temper, and his outburst will cost him his own life. This parade of horrors only finally ends in a scene with mass orgy of idolatry, a gruesome public assassination, and a plague that will leave 24,000 dead.

Misery, frustration, anger… and complaints, complaints, complaints.

And it is this week’s Parsha that begins our slow descent. This time, the main display of grievances is a lustful cry for food – meat, fish, and vegetables – made more pathetic by their longing for Egypt, where they suddenly remember eating so well. Never mind that they were slaves. And never mind that God is literally dropping sustenance from the heavens. That does not content them:

Now our insides are shriveled! There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to! (Numbers 11:6)

וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּלבִּלְתִּי, אֶלהַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ.

Moses cannot take this audacity any more. He actually asks God to kill him. God also flies into a rage, first sending more food than they could possibly consume ( “until it comes out of your nostrils”), and then, when they come out to gather it, hitting them with a plague.

Yes, the summer of discontent has definitely begun.

But the season of complaining actually begins just a bit before all this, in a brief scene that fits our theme, but is difficult to understand:

The people took to complaining bitterly in the ears of the Eternal. The Eternal heard and became angry, and a fire broke out against them, and consumed the edge of the camp. The people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Eternal, and the fire died down. That place was named Tavera, because a fire of the Eternal had spread out (va’ara) amongst them. (Num. 11:1-3)

וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים, רַע בְּאָזְנֵי ה; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ, וַתִּבְעַרבָּם אֵשׁ ה, וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה.  וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם, אֶלמֹשֶׁה; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶלה, וַתִּשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ.  וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁםהַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, תַּבְעֵרָה:  כִּיבָעֲרָה בָם, אֵשׁ ה׳

Here we have the model for a sequence of events that we will see play out again and again in the coming days and weeks: the people complain that they are lacking something; God gets angry and punishes them; Moses intervenes; destruction is averted. And then the cycle begins again.

But here, this first time, there is one big element missing. What are they complaining about? We don’t know. The verse just says they started complaining. But what was bothering them? What did they want?

Nobody really knows. Some of the commentators weakly suggest that they were tired, or afraid of danger. But most simply throw up their hands in bewilderment. Here’s the Seforno, at first trying to offer an answer, and then giving up:

They people took to complaining – about the harshness of the journey. But they weren’t truly complaining in their hearts. For they had no legitimate reason to complain. But they complained with their words, just to test God.

כמתאונניםעל טורח הדרך לא מתאוננים בלבם באמת כי לא היתה אצלם שום סבה ראויה לזה שיתאוננו אבל היו מתאוננים בדבריהם לנסות

This wasn’t really a sincere protest, says the Seforno. They were putting on a show. They weren’t as much upset themselves as they wanted to upset God.

But why? What would motivate them to push God towards anger? Rashi has an answer to that:

This complaining was nothing but a pretext. They were seeking a pretext so that they could separate themselves from God.

אין מתאוננים אלא לשון עלילה מבקשים עלילה האיך לפרוש מאחרי המקום

We tend to think of these constant complaints in the Torah as the impulsive outbursts of petulant children. But according to Rashi, they know full well what they’re doing. They want to get away from God. They’re already done with God. But they’re nervous. They don’t know what God would do if they just rejected God outright. So they’d rather God push them away first – and they’re tempting God to do it.

Both of these comments suggest that the real problem in the desert is never a material crisis, but a spiritual crisis. They aren’t really worried about dwindling resources, or Moses’ authority. Whenever you see the Children of Israel rebelling, they are struggling in their relationship with God.

In these comments, we already see a psychological take on the Biblical phenomenon of complaining – an attempt to penetrate past the words into the underlying consciousness of Israel. But an even more existential reading is offered by the great 15th-century Spanish commentator, Rabbi Issac Arama, in his highly philosophical work, the Akeidat Yitzchak. He suggests that in this first complaint there were no words at all:

At first, they had grumbling and discontent inside their hearts, but they did not reveal it in words. Only afterwards, they when they brought their complaints into the form of words, did they express them as the longing for meat… But they did not really long for meat or anything else. They simply longed for longing’s sake. Which is much, much worse.

שמתחילה היה להם הגמגום והפקפוק פנימי לבם לפומיוהו לא גלי. אמנם אחרי כן אם שלא פירשוהו כי היה להם לחרפה כבר הוציאו אותה בלשון תואנה ותלו אותה בשאלת הבשר…. הנה הפחותים האלו לא התאוו הבשר ולא זולתו אבל התאוו תאוותו והיא מדה מגונמאד

The reason we are not given the content of the complaint is that there was no content. It was pure longing, with no objective. The problem was not physical hunger, or even spiritual hunger. This was just Desire – a force unto itself.

There is in us a longing, unnamable but all-consuming. This is part of what it is to be human. We are vaguely aware of a great emptiness within us, and plagued with a yearning to fill the void. But we do not know what will satisfy our longings. So we focus on all the things we lack in life, in various desperate attempts to find something outside of us that will bring us happiness. Sometimes we find temporary relief. But soon after we get what we want, the longing comes back.

What is to be done?

One of the classic Chassidic commentaries, the Maor VaShemesh, tries to deal with this existential dilemma in his treatment of our parsha:

It says “they took to complaining,” but doesn’t explain what their complaint was…

But the idea here is a foundational principle in the service of God: One must do everything possible to distance oneself from sadness and black bitterness… This sadness at first manifests inside of us as a desire to eat. We sometimes see a man who is plagued with bitterness – God have mercy – and he eats with great abandon and haste. Then, from the desire to eat comes other desires, like sex. And soon one can no longer overcome these lusts and break one’s desires – unless one attaches oneself to the righteous, and learns from them the Paths of Life…

כתיב ויהי העם כמתאוננים ולא פירש על מה

אך הענין הוא הנה יסוד גדול בעבודת ה׳ להרחיק עצמו מעצבות ומרה שחורהוהעצבון תחלחו הוא שמתגבר בקרבו תאוות אכילה כאשר עינינו רואות האיש אשר הוא שרוי במר׳׳ש רח׳׳ל אוכל בתאוה ורעבתונות ובמהירות ומתאוות אכילה נמשך אחר תאוות אחרים כגון משגל ודומיהן ילתת עצות לנפשו להתגבר על יצרו לשבר תאוות היצר אי אפשר כי אם שידבק עצמו לצדיקים ומהנ ילמוד אורחות חיים

Our existential dissatisfactions, he suggests, come from a kind of great sadness that is simply part of the human condition. And often we try to drive away that sadness with physical distractions – food, sex, or drugs – until we get to a point where we have lost all control.

So what is the solution? How do we end the sadness? Are we to abandon all physical pleasure? Can we only find happiness by detaching from desire? Is this what it means to “attach oneself to the righteous”?

No, says the Maor VaShemesh. He continues:

For the righteous one brings everything into holiness. Therefore, he eats good food and drinks wine, he wears fine and beautiful clothing, and he lives in a nice house. But as he does all of this, he is performing a divine service, elevating holy sparks and bringing everything into holiness.

כי הצדיק הזה מביא הכל על הקדושה על כן הוא אוכל ושותה משמנים ויין ולובש בגדים נאים ויפים ויושב בדירות נאות ובכל אלה הוא עובד עבודתו הגבוה שמעלה ניצוצין קדושים ומכניס הכל על הקדושה.

Our worldly struggles will not be solved by leaving the world behind. The Paths of Life do not take us around desire, but through it. The problem with our lusts is not the physical pleasure itself; it is the attempt to use physical medicine to cure a spiritual malady. We will never cure our deepest longings with food or sex, fancy clothes or big houses.

It works the other way, suggests the Maor VaShemesh. Instead we bring our spirituality into our physical lives. Our enjoyment of life is enhanced by the quality of our consciousness.

That is the lesson of the manna, this bread that fell from heaven. The rabbis taught that it would taste like anything one imagined. If you wanted an apple, the manna tasted like an apple. If you wanted donuts, the manna tasted like donuts. And so, of course, if the Children of Israel wanted meat, the manna would have tasted like meat.

This was the great mistake that the people made when they cried out for meat and fish, and melons and leeks, and onions and garlic. They were very specific. They needed these things to be happy. But instead, they said:

There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!

אֵין כֹּלבִּלְתִּי, אֶלהַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ.

They saw nothing but manna. But in that manna, they had everything.

So he problem was not outside of them; the problem was inside of them. And so, too, the solution will never be found out there, in the desert. The solution is within.

This lesson, unfortunately, will take a long time to learn.


About Rabbi David Kasher

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