Telephone Torah Study: “The Taming of the Shrew”
On this week’s Telephone Torah Study (Thursday 4-5pm) we’ll study Parshah B’Haalot’cha [Numbers 8:1-12:16]. We’ll face, head-on, the intractable complaining of the Israelites, it’s causes and results.
We’ll base our discussion on “Whine Country” Rabbi Lisa’s commentary used last year as the URJ’s official D’var Torah.
Oy! There’s a lot of whining in this week’s Torah portion, B’haalot’cha. It has such a promising beginning-the training and blessing of the Levites for their special role among the people Israel, including the lighting of the golden seven-branched menorah; the poetic and comforting description of the cloud by day and fire by night that will signal when to make camp, and when to break camp and journey on; and the silver trumpets sounding to gather the people and God together in bad times and in good-“an institution for all time throughout the ages” (Numbers 10:8).
What happened? Why all the complaining? (Not that complaining is new to the Israelites.)
Some of the complaining proves legitimate. God appreciates it when some of the men, unable to celebrate the Passover sacrifice at its proper time, ask for another opportunity to do so. If the reason for delay is legitimate, says God, then offer it a month later on the same day of the month (9:6-13)-and the idea of Pesach Sheini is born, a second Pesach, this one, importantly, not imposed by God, but desired and requested by the people.
In this parashah the Israelites, at God’s instruction, take their leave of Mount Sinai: “They marched from the mountain of God a distance of three days” (10:33). The commentator Rashbam (twelfth century, the grandson of the more-famous commentator Rashi) theorizes that the cause of the Israelites’ complaining was the unexpected difficulty of the three-day journey.1 Given all the organizing beforehand, and the presence of the cloud and Moses to guide them, they were expecting an easier time of it.
You may also enjoy: “Who is Rich: Those who are happy with what they have,” A D’var Torah by: Richard A. Block
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).
Selected Verses of the Week:
11:11. Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?
11: 33. The meat was still between their teeth; it was not yet finished, and the anger of the Lord flared against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very mighty blow.
12:3. Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.