by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 27, 2010
In the Torah portion of B’Ha’alotkha, we find a narrative that, as the renown latter day Torah scholar R. Shimshon Pincus (1944 – 2001) points out in his commentary on this section, is rather bewildering. “The people took to complaining … The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving, and thealso wept…’Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now, our life is parched, there is nothing, we have nothing to anticipate but the manna’” (Bamidbar 11:1-6). The then comments that the “manna was like coriander seed and its color was like the color of bedolach. The people would stroll and gather it [every day after falling from heaven], and grind it in a mill or pound it in a mortar and cook it in a pot or make it into cakes” (Bamidbar 11:7-9). The Torah goes on to report: “Moses heard the people weeping…and the wrath of G-d flared greatly, and in the eyes of Moses it was bad” (Bamidbar ). Finally, Moses despairs, saying to G-d: “Why have You done evil to Your servant, why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling, to the land that You swore to its forefathers?’ Where shall I get meat to give to this entire people when they weep to me … I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me! And if this is how You deal with me, then kill me now, if I have found favor in Your eyes” (Bamidbar -15). In response to Moses, G-d establishes a Sanhedrin of 70 elders to aid Moses in his task of governing the nation; and in response to the people’s complaints, G-d brings down a plethora of quail for an entire month until it becomes “nauseating” and then punishes them for their behavior.
This is a people who were eating. They did not spend money on it. They did not need to search for it. It was waiting for them every day to be picked up and taken home. Once brought home, the manna could be cooked or fried or roasted and made into any dish that was so desired – certainly better that any cucumbers or leeks that could be had. It could taste like any meat dish or poultry or you name it. What then was their problem? And what was it about this demand of theirs that made Moses despair suddenly? The people had earlier degenerated to worshipping the ; yet Moses did not despair? He was upset then, but he did not “throw in the towel”? What was it about this demand that made Moses feel he could not go on any longer with the status quo?
R. Pincus explains that a key to decipher this quandary lies in a previous passage, that is somewhat strange in its own right. We are told that the people “made the pesach offering in the first [month], on the fourteenth day of the month, in the afternoon, in the Wilderness of Sinai, according to everything that G-d commanded Moses…There were men who had been contaminated by a human corpse and could not make the pesach offering on that day; so they approached Moses and Aaron on that day. Those men said…’We are contaminated through a human corpse; why should we be diminished by not offering G-d’s offering in its appointed time among the children of Israel? Moses said to them, ‘Stand and I will hear what G-d will command you” (Bamidbar 9:5-8). After this, Moses returns with an answer from G-d allowing them to make the offering on an alternate date. Now, imagine this scenario, R. Pincus suggests. Imagine someone coming to his local rabbi and telling him that he was sick on Rosh HaShanah and could not hear the blowing of the shofar. He would like to hear the shofar on another day. One would be hard pressed to find such an individual. And if there would be such a person, the rabbi would say, as per Halakhic guidelines, that the individual was sick and not to blame and need not hear the shofar. He would not search for or suggest an alternative. Yet this group of people was similarly incapable of fulfilling the requisite obligation and thought nothing of approaching Moses with their query, and Moses simply asks them to wait for him to verify the response with G-d? This narrative is meant to bring to the fore the amazing level upon which the people of Israel were prior to their complaining. They could approach Moses with any well-meaning request and Moses would just walk over to G-d and come back to them with a response. The people would see manna come down from heaven. They saw a cloud and pillar of fire accompany them on their journeys. They were not harmed by predators. Their clothes did not wear out. This is in fact what the people saw as their problem, R. Pincus suggests.
The people decided that they want to be “normal”. They could not stand anymore to be on such a high spiritual plateau. Things were too supernatural for their liking. Manna was too ethereal. They wanted cucumbers – something more down to earth. And this is what Moses could not bear. When the people strayed after the golden calf, they did so out of a wish – a distorted one – to be close to G-d. This upset Moses but, as long as their transgression did not come from a lack of appreciation for G-d, Moses did not despair. Here the people began to shun the bounty and spiritual benevolence offered them by G-d. This was something that the pure soul of Moses could not come to peace with. Moses’ entire persona was one of immense striving towards closeness with G-d. The spiritual heights that Moses reached were second to no other human, and Moses reveled in this spiritual benevolence. If the people that he was leading chose to retreat from the spiritual benevolence imparted upon them by G-d, then they were also retreating from the very core of what made up Moses’ essence – the striving for greater and greater heights of spirituality. Moses then saw that things were not the same. They would have to change. This was at the center of Moses’ despair. As the people retreated from the spirituality that Moses so sought after, Moses had to retreat from the banality encompassing the people that they so sought after currently.
In fact, R. Pincus mentions, it was this corrupted desire of banality whereby the people wanted to be normal rather than closer to G-d that led to their faltering in other matters reported on later in the Torah.
We need to learn to appreciate the benevolence bestowed upon us by G-d and seek to build on that benevolence to come ever closer to Him and His goodness and the spiritual bliss that comes along with it. When we come closer to G-d, we become special. It is better to want to be special than to want to be normal. One will bring us to everlasting bliss, while the other only everlasting regret.