The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and the Israelites, moreover, wept and said, “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. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4–6)
A Chasidic rebbe, in discussing Parashat B’haalot’cha , once told his students this parable: There was once a king and queen who brought forth to this world twin boys, heirs to the throne. The two boys grew up together and were precious to their parents. On the day of the twins' fifth birthday, a gang of thieves broke into the palace and abducted one of the princes. The twin that was kidnapped somehow managed to escape misfortune but was forever lost and never found his way back to the palace. Still a young boy, he was adopted by a family of beggars. Eventually he forgot that he was really a prince. He grew up destined to be a very good beggar.
On the other side of the kingdom, in the palace, the beggar’s twin brother became king upon the death of his father. But he became violently ill, and he too ultimately died. Just before his passing, the king reminded his staff that there was another heir to the throne: his twin brother. Soldiers were ordered to search the entire kingdom for the twin brother. After months of searching, they finally found the identical twin, the next king.
When they informed the beggar that he was, in fact, royalty and would live out the rest of his life as king, in a palace and in luxury, he began to weep. When asked why he was so upset, he replied, 'All my life I only had to beg for myself and my family, but now that I'm the king, I have to beg for an entire kingdom!'
In this parable the beggar represents the Children of Israel. Having been freed from a life of groveling, the beggar can’t even conceive of doing anything else but begging. He doesn’t understand that he is royalty. So too, the Israelites, born into slavery, couldn’t see themselves as anything but slaves. Slavery was all they knew. Now, a year after their redemption, the tribes try to adjust to a life of freedom. But just as the beggar is upset because of his inaccurate perception, so too the Children of Israel get upset and cry out. Their slave mentality causes them to crave the same things they had in Egypt, even at the cost of violence and hardship. They still perceive themselves as slaves.
In Or HaChayim: Commentary on the Torah (Jerusalem, 1995), Rabbi Chayim ben Attar takes note of the specific demand for meat . He asks, 'Didn’t the Israelites already have numerous flocks and herds?' Certainly if they wanted meat, they had plenty. So what were they really asking for? Verse 5 gives us more of a clue. The Israelites recall that the fish that they would eat in Egypt was “for free” ( chinam ). Rashi asks, 'What does it mean, ‘for free’”? Are we to believe that Egypt, which wouldn’t even give them straw to make bricks, would really give them fish for free? Rashi explains that “free” really alludes to the mitzvot. The Israelite slaves had no obligation to perform the commandments while they were in servitude and therefore ate fish without the condition of performing the mitzvot.
In essence, the Israelites aren’t really complaining about the lack of Egyptian delicacies. They are griping about their newfound freedom and all the responsibilities that go with it. As a child grows to adulthood, he or she soon realizes that along with the freedom of leaving the parental home comes the responsibility to take care of one’s own day-to-day needs. While the child wants the independence of adulthood, at the same time he or she craves the luxury of innocence. In the same way, the Israelites have difficulty with their transition from slavery to freedom: from back-breaking work to the performance of mitzvot.
Looking further, in 11:6 we hear the desperation of the Israelites’ cry. They say, “Now our gullets are shriveled.” The Hebrew term is nafsheinu y’veishah , literally 'our souls are dry.' How did they go from complaining about food in one verse to exclaiming that their souls are dry in the next verse? It seems like a big leap from the material to the spiritual. But that is exactly the point: the complaints don’t have their source in the material. Rather, the complaints stem from the fact that the Israelites can’t perceive the spiritual source of their experience. Instead of marveling at manna and the mitzvot, they complain and crave cucumbers.
In his book, Twerski on Chumash (Brooklyn: Shaar Press, 2003, p. 298), Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., diagnoses the Israelites’ condition as Spirituality Deficiency Syndrome. Someone with this syndrome is not attuned to the divinity that is found in the world. Twerski explains that it is the observance of the commandments that prevents one from becoming “spiritually dry” or being spiritually deficient. Mitzvot are the tools that help us sharpen our awareness of the Divine. When we enrich our lives with the performance of sacred deeds, whether they are ethical or ritual, we increase our perception of God’s presence in the world, we become spiritually efficient, we have souls that are not dry.
May we in our daily strivings become increasingly aware of the presence of divinity in our lives. And just as Shavuot follows Pesach, may we understand that with redemption and freedom comes responsibility: commandments. May the mitzvot we embrace deepen our experience of God and give meaning to our days.
By the Way
- Shiviti —I have set God before me at all times. (Psalm 16:8)
- Shiviti is an expression of hishtavut (equanimity): no matter what happens, whether people praise or shame you, and so, too, with anything else, it is all the same to you. This applies likewise to any food: it is all the same to you whether you eat delicacies or other things. For with this perspective the yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) is entirely removed from you. Whatever may happen, say that “it comes from [God] blessed be He. . . .” Your motives are altogether for the sake of Heaven, and as for yourself nothing makes any difference. This [sense of equanimity] is a very high level. ( Tzava’at Harivash: The Testament of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov , trans. Jacob Immanuel Schochet [Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1998], p. 4)
- In the Exodus, did the Israelites experience God as set before them?
- The Baal Shem Tov implies that if we see all experiences as coming from God, we will view life from a balanced perspective. In this chapter, are the Israelites on such a path to equanimity? Is equanimity the goal of Judaism?
- How can the Israelites’ progression from slavery to redemption inform our own spiritual quest? Are there things to which we are enslaved? Can we entirely remove our inclination toward evil?
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