Rabbi’s June 2023 Column

Shalom All,

At the beginning of Parashat B’haalot,cha, which we read this month, we find the Israelites settled into their journey across the desert. They have now spent more than a year in the wilderness. Every morning they pick manna, food, which has miraculously grown over night, to sustain them. Every Shabbat, they find that Friday’s portion of food was enough for two days, so they don’t have to work to gather it during the Sabbath. They wander from place to place making camp wherever God leads them. God, according to the text, leads them by traveling with them. God exists for them as a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night. The same two pillars that protected them from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Wherever the pillar stops, that’s where the people make camp. When it is time for the people to continue their journey, trumpets are sounded, the camp is broken down, and the pillar lifts off of the Tabernacle, and moves on.

How close God must have seemed to our ancestors, how real? God protected them, fed them, lead them. God was ever present in their lives. Yet, despite all that was being done for them the people are unhappy. They become blinded by the routine of their day, and begin to complain bitterly, saying, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, and onions, and garlic. Now our stomachs are shriveled. There is nothing at all. Nothing but manna.”

The commentary on this portion, points out how illogical their k’vetching is. Like bored children they are complaining just to complain. In Or HaChayim, Rabbi Chayim ben Attar takes note of the specific demand for meat, saying, “Didn’t the Israelites already have numerous flocks and herds? Certainly if they wanted meat, they had plenty.” While Rashi takes issue with the statement that the fish they ate in Egypt was “free.” He writes, “Are we to believe that Egypt, which wouldn’t even give them straw to make bricks, would really give them fish for free?”

The children of Israel, at this point, are just that, children. They are still learning to live with the responsibilities of being a free people. They are like frustrated teenagers who want to be treated like adults but deep down still crave the irresponsible life of a kid. They complain about silly things, beyond their control, and struggle for independence when they really want comfort.

In the end, their complaining prevents them from recognizing the true bounty in front of them. By focusing only on the mundane details of daily life, the Israelites were unable to recognize the gifts being given to them and the miracle of a life lived in the presence of God.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for us as well. The details of our own lives are no less mundane than they were for our ancestors, we simply have more distractions available to us to minimize our complaints. However, if we, like our ancestors, focus solely on the routine of daily existence, then we too will miss out on the beauty, the miracles, and the gifts that this life affords us.

God’s presence can be found in our lives too, we need only see past the details to recognize it.

Rabbi Todd