In our portion of the week, B'haalot'cha, particularly in Numbers 11, we find a famous and classic episode of the murmurings of our people in the desert. Led by the riffraff among them, the asafsuf, they suddenly come weeping to Moses and express a gluttonous craving: "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." (Num. 11:4-5) In a remarkable scene, Moses turns to God for help. Not only does he get some good advice on dealing with the people by gathering seventy elders (the first Board of Trustees!) to help him handle the rebels, but he is also guided in what to tell the people who ask why they ever left Egypt.
In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Gunther W. Plaut (The Torah: A Modern Commentary) says that "ultimately it was the God of freedom whom the murmurers rejected when they cried, 'Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!' It would not be long before that whole generation would be pronounced unfit to enter the Promised Land." And in her commentary on Bemidbar, Nehama Leibowitz (the wonderful teacher of Torah who died recently at the age of ninety-two after teaching generations of students in Israel-including myself when I was a student at the Hebrew University) wrote, "The people were not really grumbling against their diet but against the authority of God, casting doubts on [God's] power and omnipotence." Wandering in the desert, even with the hope of reaching the destination of the Land of Israel, was fraught with all kinds of exigencies, physical, psychological, and spiritual. How was it possible that the people would give up the vision of home so easily and want to return to a condition of slavery in a foreign land?
It is not always easy to maintain hope, especially in a situation of freedom. In the Diaspora, Jews often imagine that the "good ol' days" were somehow better for the Jewish people, quickly forgetting how difficult life really was in "the old country." And in Israel, where we as a Jewish people live in freedom in our own state, we often yearn for the "meat" of the old country (and have brought McDonald's and Burger King to Israel in a big way!). Modern Hebrew literature is replete with reminders of how much the galut, "exile," and the galut mentality stay with us, even under sovereignty in our own land. Learning to live with freedom is an extraordinarily complicated affair. There are no simple solutions, no panaceas for our problems, in both the Diaspora and Israel. We often are tempted to give up in the face of too much adversity. We are sometimes, like those in the generation of the desert, unable to cope with the journey to the Promised Land. But the message of the Torah is clear. The generation of the desert is not able to live in the land of freedom. We, too, need to overcome our murmurings and our kvetching and accept the responsibility of living in freedom, wherever we live as Jews.
Today we lead lives blessed with freedom unknown to our ancestors and even some of our own family members. Yet how quick we are to forget and to take that freedom for granted. As Rabbi Kronish points out, through our community's struggles to adjust to new lives in free and democratic nations, we sometimes forgot about the challenges of living under oppression or hardship. We remember the "good ol' days," instead of looking forward with vision into the future.
Making a change in life is hard. Parshat Beha'alotecha teaches us that lesson. On their journey to the Promised Land the Israelites made changes in their life styles, societal structures, and modes of religious observance in a effort to create a new community and a new culture, based on the teachings given to them at Mount Sinai. All those changes must have been unsettling!
But this was not the first nor the last time our people went through such a transition. Think back to the first time our ancestors were sent to the Promised Land. Abraham and Sarah left the land of their ancestors to travel to a land entirely alien to them. Review the events that befell them. How did they cope with the changes of life outside of Ur. Did they maintain hope and faith in God's authority? Did they have moments of doubt?
In our own time, many of our parents and grandparents, friends and colleagues have experienced life transitions such as those of the Israelites and Abraham and Sarah. Escaping from Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union they sought freedom from oppression and anti-Semitism. How do their experiences compare to those of the Israelites? What was God's role in their journeys to freedom? How did (or do) they maintain hope when faced with the challenges of creating a new life in a new land and a new culture?
Rabbi Kronish reminds us that with that freedom comes responsibility. We are repeatedly taught in the Torah to remember we were once strangers and to apply that memory to our daily life. "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I Adonai am your God. (Lev. 19:33-34)
What does the text mean by "wrong him?" Rabbi W. Gunther W. Plaut (The Torah: A Modern Commentary) says that refers to not "taking advantage of his unfamiliarity with economic conditions and business practices, or even by [speaking] unkind words." Reflect on who the strangers are in our communities today. How do our countries treat strangers? How do our synagogues welcome them? Are we living up to the responsibilities given to us in the Torah?
Our experience is not so distant from that of the Israelites. As a people, we, too, have shaped our lives guided by the vision of a free Jewish life. As we remember and strive toward achieving that vision for all Jews, we carry with us the responsibility to help others, Jews and people from any background, triumph over the challenges and privileges of freedom.
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868