Here's one of the few facts I remember from my high school physics class: Because the surface of the earth is curved, the farthest distance a person can see is about four or five miles. Everything beyond that, even with the best telescope, is obscured from view.
Four to five miles! For some people (not me) that's a short, early morning run. Our vision is so limited! Our perspective is so circumscribed. So much lies beyond our horizons at any given moment.
The same is true in our daily lives. So often we become accustomed repeated patterns and habits of mind that help us tread water, but move us no further. We tacitly accept the idea of inexorable fate — it's our lot to struggle, we can't change it. The weight of the present prevents us from imagining alternative futures. We lose sight of alternatives — of a different world beyond our present circumstances — a world just around the corner, beyond the horizon.
Moses appears to fall victim to the same trap in this week's Torah reading, Parashat B'haalot'cha.
No more than a few days journey from Mount Sinai, the Israelites take to "complaining bitterly" before God (Numbers 11:1). What is their grievance? Food, of course. (These are our ancestors, after all.)
The Israelites kvetch, "If only we had meat to eat!. . . . There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!" (11:4-6).
Exasperated, Moses cries out to God, "Kill me rather, I beg you, and let me see no more of my wretchedness" (11:14).
But God accepts the people's challenge, and then some: "The Eternal will give you meat and you shall eat. 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 . . . " (11:18-20).
But Moses asks, "Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?" (11:21).
Our ancestors disagreed about this question and what it said about Moses' state of mind.
According to Rabbi Akiva, Moses was despondent. His vision was constrained. He couldn't imagine the possibility that God might in fact be capable of providing sufficient food for the people or that such abundance might already be present all around them (on the latter possibility see Nachmanides on Numbers 11:22). Moses, like many of us, had no sense of imagination, of whimsy, of hope. For him, there was no alternate future beyond the present.
Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar saw things differently. Moses wasn't without hope. He understood the truth that possibilities could exist beyond his immediate frame of reference. Rather, he feared how the Israelites would respond if God made the impossible possible. Would placating the insatiable masses be a good thing? Wouldn't they want more? Moses' question was, thus, merely rhetorical (Tosefta, Sotah 6:7, Lieberman).
Jewish commentators have generally come down on one side of this debate or on the other. But, to my mind, there is merit in both views, to the extent that they represent two ways of seeing the world.
So often we find ourselves like Rabbi Akiva's Moses, despondent, unable to visualize realities beyond the present. There are times though, when we are like Rabbi Shimon's Moses, we are able — perhaps because of imagination or faith or simply hope — to see realities of abundance beyond our horizon.
So often we feel we are journeying in the wilderness, our vision of the future constrained by the bleak present. At these times, it's helpful to remember just how limited our vision really is: only four or five miles! There is indeed potential for hope, for joy, and for radical transformation in our lives, if only we muster the strength to look beyond our narrow horizon.
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation and a doctoral candidate in History at Columbia University. He is chair of the CCAR's Worship and Practice committee.