Beha’alotcha 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotcha

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

OVERVIEW

This parsha is thematically diverse, beginning with the Menorah [lamp] in the Mishkan, then proceeding to a description of the dedication of the Levites as assistants to the priests. The Israelites celebrate the Pesach (Passover) holy day in the wilderness, but some people can’t bring the sacrifice, due to ritual impurity. So God gives them a second chance, a month later. Then the Israelites complain about their diet of food direct from heaven [Manna] – so God sends them so much meat that it comes out their nostrils! Aharon and Miriam speak slander against Moshe and his wife; Miriam is stricken with a scaly skin outbreak, and sent out of the camp.

IN FOCUS

“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. ” (Numbers 11:4-7)

PSHAT

Complaining and rebellion is a recurring theme in the book of Numbers- despite all the miracles, beginning with the liberation from Egypt, some of the Israelites just can’t appreciate everything that is being done for them. In this case, it seems like some of the “mixed multitude” who went out of Egypt with the Israelites are instigating the complaining. The people are complaining about the manna from heaven, even though the Torah tries to tell us how yummy it was, something like a creamy cake flavored with spices. On the most basic level, the book of Numbers repeatedly reminds us to appreciate our blessings, have a little faith, and refrain from negativity and excessive “kvetching.”

DRASH

A key word in the Israelites’s complaint is hinam, or “free.” Rashi quotes a midrash which explains that “free” was not free in its literal sense, but “free from mitzvot.” In other words, what the Israelites were really complaining about was the expectations that God now has of them as autonomous, responsible people.

While this interpretation certainly touches on the ambivalence that the Israelites seem to feel towards God and Moshe, other commentators (such as Nachmanides) understand hinam more literally- i.e., that the Egyptians provided cheap food, like cucumbers and fish from the Nile, to their slaves, presumably in order to keep them working hard. However, the Israelites are getting even better food, even more “free”, out in the wilderness! So their complaint is very strange- but maybe that’s the point.

Of course, we know that the food they received in Egypt was not free at all- it came at the cost of their freedom, their labour, their dignity, their spirituality, and their very lives. I hear the very irrationality of this complaint- “we miss the free cucumbers in Egypt !” – as a poignant sign of their very real fear of the changes that the future might bring. Being free, being not enslaved, means being responsible for yourself: not only for providing oneself and one’s family with the basics of life, but having to make important moral choices that a slave (or an addict, or a workaholic, or a codependent. . . .) simply doesn’t (or won’t) confront.

Personal change and growth can be so scary that sometimes people would rather be stuck in something bad than go forward into the future. We might think of a person stuck in a bad work situation, or an abusive relationship, or an addiction, or unhealthy grief- even though it’s “Egypt,” a place of real personal unhappiness, sometimes it’s more comfortable than the hard personal choices that God lays before us.

For the Israelites, there really wasn’t a choice: they had to go forward into their destiny as a nation, despite the hardships. They might have complained along the way, and pined for the comfortable spiritual paralysis of servitude, but their journey was laid out for them. Perhaps the fact that they moved forward, despite their fears and complaints and doubts, can be inspiration for each of us to do the same. No matter how good the past seems in our memories, no matter how scary the future might be, ultimately we must move forward, embracing our destiny, and appreciating the blessings of the present.

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