Parashat B'haalot'cha takes up the issue of the perils of materialism that Rabbinic interpreters found implicit in a verse from last week's portion, Numbers 6:24, "The Eternal bless you [with possessions] and protect you [from your possessions possessing you]." An incident occurring in this portion makes the point vividly. Complaining bitterly about the monotonous diet of manna that God has provided, the Israelites long for meat and wax nostalgic about "the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic" (Numbers 11:5). Such were the real, exaggerated, and imagined hardships of desert life that even slavery seemed like paradise.
The base ingratitude and ceaseless bellyaching anger God. Moses, too, is fed up. In frustration, Moses voices a complaint of his own against God, employing some of the Torah's most colorful, evocative imagery. "Why have You dealt ill with Your servant . . . that You have laid the burden of this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant . . .?' Where am I to get meat to give all this people when they whine before me . . .?" (Numbers 11:11-14). Unable to carry the Israelites all by himself, Moses asks God to lighten his load or take his life. God responds by sending a storm of quail, strewing them some three feet deep and two days' walk across. The people gather and eat until the food comes out of their nostrils and becomes loathsome (Numbers 11:20). A severe plague ensues and people who had the craving perish.
Once again the Torah teaches that it is possible, even dangerous, to have too much of a good thing, a lesson we seem most reluctant to take to heart in twenty-first-century America, despite personal experience. Rarely does our newest possession fascinate us for long. Rather than satisfy our appetite, additional possessions seem to whet it, sending us forth in search of newer, better, more, but coming up empty. While contemporary culture may have elevated self-indulgence to an art, the problem is not new, as the Torah demonstrates. The noted Rabbinic sage Ben Zoma expressed a similar view. "Who is rich?" he asked, rhetorically. "Those who are happy with what they have" (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Recognizing that our values are formed in childhood and that parents are their children's most impactful teachers, Jewish tradition urges us not to spoil children or accustom them to a pampered existence. A Talmudic passage urges, "Discipline your family to the simple needs of life. Hence the Torah teaches a rule of conduct-that parents should not accustom their children to meat and wine" (Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 84a). That is to say, by word and example, we should help our children learn to enjoy life's simple pleasures, accept and set limits, value what they have, and share with those in need.
Successful Jewish parenting is not getting easier. Our children are bombarded with distorted value messages from every direction and are subject to many influences beyond parental control. Still, we can and must fight back. My first full-time congregation was in Greenwich, Connecticut, a very affluent community. Soon, our two young sons were under the false impression that everyone in town except us was "rich," that we were the only Greenwich household without a limousine and a French maid. My wife and I were alarmed and mortified. Thereafter, when one of the boys used the word "rich," we would ask, "Are they happy with what they have?" or "Do you know the Jewish definition of 'rich'?" This response rapidly became as tiresome as manna to our kids, but they understood our message. They are now adults with children of their own, but I hope and pray that they will never use or hear "rich" without remembering its true Jewish meaning, and where they learned it.
A tale is told about Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf of Zhitomer, the Zhitomer Rav.1 He was once walking with his son when they saw a drunken man and his drunken son stumbling into the gutter. "I envy that father," said the rabbi to his son. "He has accomplished his goal of having a son like himself. I don't know yet whether you will be like me. I can only hope the drunkard is not more successful in training his son than I am with you."
The most important contribution parents and grandparents can make to children's personal and moral development is leading a life worthy of emulation. Kids are extremely keen observers and discern instinctively contradictions between our words and our deeds. If we want them to grow into compassionate, generous, socially concerned adults, rather than materialistic, stunted, self-absorbed people, we need to be concerned with the implicit message conveyed in our own lifestyle choices, avoid undue emphasis on the acquisition of material things, devote meaningful measures of our time and resources to helping others, and emphasize that which is "priceless" rather than what is merely expensive. Our prayer book reminds us, "Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles."2 How much better off we and our children and grandchildren will be if we teach them to experience fully the pleasure of what we already possess, if we do not need a thing until we already have it, and if we focus on pursuing what contributes most to happiness and wellbeing: loving relationships, honest work, good health, supportive communities, and service to others.
- Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living, Francine Klagsbrun (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1980), p. 179
- Mishkan T'filah, Elyse D. Frishman, ed. (New York: CCAR, 2007), p. 81
Rabbi Richard A. Block is senior rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a president-elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the vice chair of the Reform Pension Board.
Yasher Koach to my colleague Rick Block on so beautifully articulating the message parents have been telling their children since, apparently, the days of Moses. Yes, we should be happy with what we already have. I agree, we probably all agree, and yet who among us eats the same meal everyday for months on end without complaint?
Compared to the suffering of slavery, manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seems a small price to pay for freedom; and yet our biblical ancestors kvetch, they want more. Why? Because they are finally free. Slaves don't complain-not out loud-for fear of punishment, and because they know they have no power to change their circumstance. But free people have freedom of mind and thought, wants and desires that are at the core of human achievement.
Rabbi Block argues that this human desire for more is the root of many of our problems, but our Rabbinic tradition says it is actually the source of much of our achievement. The midrash teaches, "Were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build, would not marry, would not have children, and would not engage in business. And so Shlomo said (Kohelet 4:4): "(all work comes from) man's jealousy for his neighbor" ( B'reshit Rabbah 9:7). Being dissatisfied is what motivates humankind. To paraphrase the fictional Gordon Gecko, "Greed [with moral grounding] is good." The Torah and our Jewish code of law, properly understood, provide the moral grounding.
I'm glad our biblical ancestors looked at their manna and remembered longingly the modest but relatively gourmet food of slavery; if they hadn't wanted more, life would be as bland as their food.
Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (www.templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana, California. He blogs regularly at www.rabbidanmoskovitz.com.
"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"