To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom
Thoughts on Parashat Beha’alotecha
When we look around at the life of our society, we often wonder why these or those problems and injustices take place. We find answers here and there, in the media, in the scientific literature, or in the opinions of other people. These answers are true to varying degrees. There are those that include deep and complicated analyses – they are usually presented by scientists, philosophers etc. There are plenty of simple or superficial answers to these problems – these are usually presented by politicians. The criterion of their truthfulness, however, is basically one: their practical effectiveness – whether they help to remove the problems they speak about or not.
This week’s Torah portion speaks about this kind of social problem: we have a story of Israelites complaining that they have no meat to eat. (Numbers 11:4-15) This complaint causes the Divine wrath, which is, however, stopped (temporarily) by Moses. But let’s pause here and analyze this part of the story in a bit greater depth. Midrash Sifre explains that the demand for meat could be a cause for God’s vexation, however, not for the fact that the Israelities indeed lacked meat, but for the fact they did not lack it while wandering through the desert. The Torah tells us that they left Egypt with great flocks of sheep and herds of cattle:
…A mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.
They had not consumed them all in the desert. Surely they ate some, but the herds increased during 40 years of wandering – when they were about to enter the land we are told that:
The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers.
Thus, it was not the complete lack of meat that made the Israelities complaining. But it is possible that these two tribes – Reubenites and Gadites – had more, or even much more livestock than the 10 remaining tribes. If that was the case, then it would mean that only some of the Israelites lacked meat to eat and only some of them complained. There are two other hints regarding this matter in our parasha. First, Moses, when speaking with God, confirms, that they indeed had livestock:
Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to suffice them?” (Numbers 11:22)
But at the same time the way Moses speaks about it suggests that there was some gluttonous desire an insatiability involved here, which is completely in line with what we find in the verse 11:4:
The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, If only we had meat to eat! (Numbers 11:4).
Thus, what is really going on here is that the group of people called in Hebrew ha’aspesuf, which can be translated as the riffraff, rabble or mob is frustrated and expresses a gluttonous craving: the Hebrew hit’avu ta’ava can be translated as they coveted with lust. Why did they desire the meat so lustfully? Because they were hungry? Not necessarily. It’s possible that they complained because others had meat and they didn’t. This reading is confirmed by Ramban, who says that the wealthier ones had meat in the desert all the time. Some people tend to view the Israelites wandering through the desert as some sort of “equally disadvantaged” group of people who just left the country where they were all “equally oppressed.” In fact, there is neither textual, nor common-sense evidence that this view is correct. It seems that even in Egypt there was disparity between the Israelites, both in the matter of wealth and social status – if they even existed in Auschwitz (as described in P. Levi or J. Amery writings for example), why should they not exist in Egypt, in place where, despite slavery and the terrible living conditions, our ancestors could survive, had families and were able to meet their needs. They all left Egypt with what they had, some had more and some had less. Then, while encamping in the desert, some were frugal and resourceful, and some others were lazy or wasteful, as people normally are.
Therefore, it seems that the Divine wrath that followed their complaints was not an irritation of a Deity who has anger management issues and finds pleasure in torturing the poor, disadvantaged people. It seems that this Divine anger was a common form of spiritual unrest that stemmed from more complex social phenomena: frustration, gluttony, greed, lack of spiritual discipline and perhaps some general, unjust social divisions among the Israelite tribes.
Poverty isn’t good but it is not poverty itself that causes unrest, hatred and violence. There are plenty of poor and disadvantaged societies in the world where the crime rate is not higher than in our affluent, Western societies. It is the relative poverty that causes all of that; it is the situation in which some people lack perspectives to grow, to obtain better social status, while seeing others doing well and constantly moving up in the social hierarchy. This happens, on a smaller or larger scale, in every human society. But the reasons it happens are not purely ‘systemic’; it is not only due to the fact how the society is organized. There are plenty of equally valid reasons for which unrest and injustices happen: educational, cultural and spiritual. It really matters what people are being taught in our societies: whether they are taught frugality and (spiritual) discipline, or entitlement, wastefulness and balagan are being tolerated or even rewarded. It really matters whether we really teach social solidarity and sensitivity towards the needs of others, or these are all just phony upper class gestures made to feel morally better and to appease ‘the mob’.
Therefore, given the complexity of the problem, ein la’davar sof – there is no end in the strivings for justice in our societies. We all should be actively involved in it. God, in His response to Moses’ intercession for the Israelites singles out seventy elders whom He bestows with His Divine spirit. It was all done to heal the Israelite community and to teach them self-control, mindfulness and to fill them with spiritual strength, joy and hope. All these things matter enormously and they cannot be brought or changed ‘systemically’. It is a spiritual duty of every human individual: everyone of us should share the spark of the Divine wisdom he or she obtained. The work towards justice and peace is to a large extent on us, common people: we have to teach each other and learn from each other as much as we can.