Beha’alotcha, this week’s parsha, is not an easy one. Four chapters in the book of Numbers, laying out cultic rules and laws. It discusses the laws of sin offerings, which aren’t particularly relevant; it outlines the Passover holiday…don’t they know it’s June? It discusses silver horns to blow to assemble the entire congregation, but that seems unnecessary since I already have your attention. This week, I read through the pages of what seemed to be irrelevant or unexciting words and just when I was about to give up, I came upon the last aliyah; Numbers Chapter 11. Huddled between the laws and trumpet calls was a story, a rather interesting tale, about our kvetching Israelite ancestors.
The story begins with “the riffraff in the midst of the congregation felt a gluttonous craving.” Now that’s a great introduction to a story. The Israelites cried out to Moses saying ‘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, the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” Moses, hearing just one kvetch too many from these people cried out to God, saying “I cannot carry all this people by myself, it is too much for me…kill me, rather, I beg you”. God, having had enough with a people that had caused Moses, his chosen leader, to beg for death rather than deal with them, steps in and quite literally makes meat rain from the sky. A good number of the Israelites, mostly the riffraff, gorge themselves on what they had been craving, only to be struck with sickness, many of them succumbing to death. By the time the Israelites left that location, it was called “Kivroth Hata’avah,” The Graves of Craving.
Besides the fact that The Graves of Craving is my new favorite name for a place, the story actually has a great deal to teach us. One place to begin may be to look at the story as a historical narrative, taking the Torah literally. Through this pshat, or simple view, we would encounter a pretty standard biblical warning: don’t tick off God. Don’t complain. Be grateful that God took you out of Egypt forever. Done. Easy.
Of course, as Reform Jews, we’re more in the habit of taking a scholarly look at our sacred texts. Instead of asking what the literal meaning of this story is, we ask, why is this story present in our Torah? The story is not part of what scholars would call the “meta-narrative” of the Torah, meaning that if you were to remove these events altogether, the overarching plotline and all of our main characters would go on just fine. Why then did the writers of the Torah feel it was a necessary addition to our sacred text?
Well, for starters, it’s one heck of a story about parenting. The Israelites cry out to God saying “we want this, not that!” It is the very model of the complaint of a child, featuring lack of appreciation for abundance, the cry for something different, and absolute overdramatized cries that there is nothing good! Nothing good at all! As Asher, my son, has recently turned two, and learned how to throw tantrums, I found myself seeing some unfortunate similarities to the actions of the Israelites. This particular temper tantrum seems to be a bit over the pay-grade of the Israelite’s babysitter, Moses, who asks for death rather than handle this crowd of whiners. So God, the parent, steps in. And God has had enough. You want meat, God asks? Fine, I’ll give you meat. “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected the Lord who is among you, by whining before Him and saying, ‘Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!’”
How many of us are familiar with this strategy? You really want that cookie dough? Fine, have it. Have as much of it as you want, but don’t come crying to me when your stomach starts hurting. You want to smoke? Go for it. In fact, why don’t you go ahead and smoke that entire pack, right now. Every parent has done it to their children at least once. It’s the classic “teach yourself a lesson” strategy. And usually, the strategy works. How many times have we put ourselves in that position as children, writhing in pain, gripping our stomachs in the fetal position, as we say to ourselves, “I will never eat cookie dough for dinner again!” The strategy, as it turns out, works on our ancestors, as it ends with them getting sick from overeating.
So parenting advice! That’s a great lesson to take away from this story. Then again, the place is called The Graves of Craving because a pretty big group of Israelites die! And that goes a little too far for me in terms of teaching kids a lesson. So maybe there’s another route we can take. Let’s try focusing on the dynamic of the crowd, rather than on God’s punishment of them. Remember, this whole thing started because a few people, the riffraff, decided to voice their ingratitude. It was their rabble rousing that brought on Moses’ despair and God’s wrath. We read in verse 4 that “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept.” As we read about the influence the riffraff seemed to have on the Israelites, we find a great lesson about mob mentality. How much trouble can come from listening to the loudest voice in the crowd? In the story we see that it is the entirety of the Israelite nation that is punished by God, not just the riffraff. Even if a number of Israelites joined in the crowd and cried for something other than manna, it is hard to believe that every single Israelite was unified in screaming and protesting. Even so, at some point, God no longer distinguishes the rabble-rousers from the observers, and everyone is punished. We have, therefore, a cautionary tale, teaching us that we must be weary of the loudest voice in the crowd, especially when we don’t support what that voice has to say. Even if the message seems unrelated to us, or unimportant, it may at some point decide our own fate.
There is still a third lesson, one which I believe to be the most complicated and interesting, one that deals with the relationship between short-sightedness and gratitude. Remember that the story begins with the Israelite’s cry, “we used to eat free in Egypt”. Anyone of us who have read Exodus, or attended a Passover Seder, might raise their eyebrows and say, aren’t the Israelites forgetting the fact that the reason they ate free in Egypt was because they were slaves for 400 years? They certainly seem to be using the word “free” rather liberally! But maybe it’s not so simple. These Israelites appear in the book of Numbers, a few generations after the redemption from Egypt. This is not the group that was liberated from Egypt witnessing the plagues and the splitting of the sea. So I think it’s fair to ask: How long must we ask the Israelites to be grateful for their freedom before they can complain about everyday wants and needs? I’m not suggesting they should have forgotten their ancestors who suffered in slavery. We ourselves are many generations removed from the days of slavery in Egypt and even we remember. But is it fair for God to be so angry that these people who have wandered in the wilderness are sick of manna? To globalize the question, we might ask how long should we hold our generosity over the heads of others. How many generations must pass before they can be appreciative but not bow down in tribute? Conversely, how long should we persecute an entire people for deeds that occurred many, many years in the past?
These are important questions. They are important questions for everyone but they are particularly relevant to the Jewish people, who remain to this day targets of hate and violence. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the Torah portion does not answer the questions for us. We are not told how long we must be grateful before we can give in to human nature and kvetch a little. Nor do we know whether it was really fair for God to punish the Israelites as he did. Moreover, we are not told why this story even exists in our Torah! And while it may be frustrating not to have the answers, it is the questions that keep us working. Our Torah is called “Eitz Hayiim”, a “Tree of Life to those that hold it fast”. What a wonderful name, for it is a tree of life. It provides for us, and all Jews today, an eternal and evolving source of learning. The Torah lives because we continue to ask questions.