Saturday, June 6, 2015

Parshat Behaalotcha: Totally Dependent on Hashem

This last Shabbat's Parsha is one of my favorites. Of course, I am a bit biased. Parshat Behaalotcha is my Bar Mitzvah Parsha. Parshat Behaalotcha features something in it for everyone. The lighting of the Menorah, the choosing of the Leviites, Pesach Sheni, the flags and formations of the camp as they prepared to march into Eretz Yisrael, the blowing of the trumpets (the obligation for Tefilla according to Ramban), Chovav Moshe's father-in-law AKA Yitro, the upside down nuns of Chumash baseball fame, the Ark of the Covenant marching into battle, the complaints of the Benay Yisrael including one for "real" meat, Moshe's questioning his leadership abilities, Eldad and Meidad's mysterious prophecy in the camp, ending with Miriam's Lashon Hara and Tzaraat. What a packed Parsha!

The Rav, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik zt"l, uses this portion as a basis for a seminal lecture on leadership. I highly recommend that you listen to the recording and read the transcript as you will never be able to learn this Parsha and really the entire Sefer Bamidbar the same way again.

When I was learning through the Parsha today, I found two incidents to be particularly fascinating. The first half of the Parsha spends an inordinate amount of space focusing on the travels and encampments of Benay Yisrael in the desert led by the heavenly cloud, the Anan. Towards the end of the Parsha, there is a long story devoted to the Kivrot Hataavah, the graves of lust; the people who lusted for meat complaining that the Manna from heaven was inadequate and ultimately died in their own gluttonous orgy with the meat of the birds that Hashem sent still stuck between their teeth.

I believe that these two stories are actually two sides of the same coin. The story of the travels in the desert is presented in great detail. The Torah emphasizes that traveled according to the bidding of Hashem and encamped according to G'd's bidding. Sometimes the cloud would linger for days, months or a year so they stayed encamped. Other times the cloud lifted after a single day so they traveled. They never knew from one day to the next whether they would be staying or leaving being totally dependent on the will of G-d. The Seforno comments that this is presented to praise Benay Yisrael for their total obedience to G-d, quoting the famous verse from Yirmiyahu, לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה, they followed after G-d into the desert, a land without vegetation.

The story of the graves of lust is the polar opposite. Benay Yisrael complained about the Manna, lusting after meat instead. The Ramban explains that this was a thinly veiled critique not of the Manna per se but of the method of food procurement in the desert. Benay Yisrael wanted the security of having פת בסלו, food in their pantry available to be eaten later. The Manna fell every day and could not be stored from one day to the next except over Friday night for Shabbat. Dependence on the Manna was a constant act of total faith and dependence on Hashem. What guarantee did they have that they would have food from one day to the next? If the Manna didn't fall the next day, they starved. Only their constant G-d awareness is what gave them hope that they would have food in the future.

The people rebelled against this. They preferred the meat, the fish, the cucumbers, onions, watermelons, and garlic that they had in Egypt, free of charge. They no longer wanted this total dependence on Hashem for their daily sustenance. These people no longer wanted to follow after G-d into the desert, a land without anything to eat. They wanted a dependable source of food which they could trust in. For this they were punished.

I believe that this desert experience where Benay Yisrael were totally dependent on Hashem for their basic needs is a microcosm for our daily lives. The desert experience was not an otherworldly existence, actually it was the REAL world. Really, we are all always totally dependent on Hashem EVERY day of our lives. Just in the desert, this was much more obvious. There was no way anyone could say otherwise. It was clear that everything came from G-d. Recognizing this is what Benay Yisrael is praised for early in the Parsha and a lack of this recognition leads to tragic results later in the portion. In our world, this is less clear. We need to put in effort and it appears that it is this effort that determines if we get more or less, if we make millions or live barely over the poverty line. However, in reality, we are just as dependent on Hashem as our ancestors in the desert. It is our challenge to recognize this and act accordingly.

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