Parashat B'haalot'kha

Numbers 8:1–12:16

May 29, 2010 / 16 Sivan 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Abigail Treu, JTS.

How do we deal with frustration?

As the Israelites begin their journey away from a place they've called home for 400 years toward an unknown land and future, their frustrations turn into complaints that ignite God's wrath and test the limits of Moses's patience. Two models emerge from this cycle of stories.

The first model arises just after Moses instructs the people that it is time to offer the Passover sacrifice:

But there were some men who were impure by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to them, "Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" (Num. 9:6–7)

You can hear the despair: it just doesn't seem fair. The anniversary of such a momentous occasion still so fresh in their minds and hearts, and they cannot participate with the rest of the community. Even worse, the reason for their disqualification is ritual impurity due to contact with a dead person; presumably the members of this group are in mourning, having just lost someone in their household. As if losing someone after everything these families had been through before, during, and after the Exodus is not bad enough, now they're told they can't do Passover?! Infuriating.

Moses said to them, "Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you." And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people saying: When any of you or your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, they shall offer it in the second month [i.e., one month later]." (Num. 9:9–10)

God grants them a second chance, a makeup date to do what they wanted to do so badly but could not. Here frustration is met with a sincere appeal to the leadership (in the form of a question to Moses) who then turns to a Higher Authority (as the old Hebrew National commercials would put it) for an answer. The answer comes back reasoned, compassionate, and practical. Model number one: when frustrated, find a practical solution through the channels of leadership and change that are available to you.

Two chapters later, the mess begins. "The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord" (11:1), and God becomes angry, so angry that that "a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp." Next the people take up a complaint about food: "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!" (11:4–6). Aggravated, God responds with a "be careful what you wish for" meal of abundant quail, which turns out to be infested with plague. They bury their dead, march on, and the next vignette continues the theme as Miriam and Aaron take up complaining about Moses and his wife; Miriam is punished with leprosy as a result. The Israelites have entered a cycle: frustration begets complaining, which begets God's punishment, which begets more frustration and complaint. This negative cycle stands in stark contrast to the first model, in which a useful and healthy solution is found to resolve the frustrations of the moment.

Beyond the contrast in results, the two ways of dealing with frustration differ in content as it pertains to time. Nehama Leibowitz writes:

Whether we accept Avravanel's explanation that the fish were free due to the specific natural conditions which allowed everyone the opportunity to procure fish, or Nahmanides, that it was a special privilege accorded the king's workmen, we may learn from here how powerful is the selective ability of memory. The terrible price they had to pay for this give-away diet—slavery, suffering, persecution, murder of their children—is conveniently forgotten. What remained—the fish they ate freely, without paying for them.

Frustration here is rooted in an unhealthy nostalgia for the past and gives rise to a selective memory which poisons the souls of those indulging in such revisionist history. No wonder God responds with anger and revenge. As Rashi put it:

Does it say that the Egyptians actually gave them fish for free?! Surely it is stated: "Now go and work; for no straw shall be given you" (Exod. 5:18). If they wouldn't give them straw for free, would they have given them fish for free?! How then do I explain the term "free"? Free from the Commandments.

God is angry that they cannot stop thinking about a past that did not include the brit and the recently given mitzvot. God is angry that their distorted nostalgia has come to ruin a present God has crafted with care for them.

The message is that frustrations that have to do with the present moment—celebrating the holiday today, for example—can be resolved in a healthy way. Frustrations rooted in the past (or fears tied to the future, as with the episode next week involving the scouts) turn into complaint and anger or fear and worry; either way, what ensues is a way of life that results in nothing but disappointment and further frustration.

There is one more frustrated character we have not examined: Moses. At his wit's end with the people, he complains that he cannot bear the burden of leadership alone. In response, God instructs him to gather seventy elders, "and I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit (ruach) that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone" (11:17).

To which category does this belong? Is Moses's complaint resolved compassionately by God or punished? There are differences of opinion. Jacob Milgrom, confining himself to a peshat reading of the Biblical text, understands the spreading of the ruach that had hitherto been Moses's alone as God's punishment to his whining prophet (JPS Commentary to Numbers, excursus 24). The Rabbis, however, (in Tanhuma B, B'ha·alot'kha 28) compare the ruach to a candle: though many flames may be kindled with it, its own light is not diminished. Moses's ruach is spread to others and that eases his burden. The message is clear: the more ruach we share from within ourselves—even at the times when we feel the most frustrated, the most burdened—the more there is. And this must happen in the present moment. Moses is frustrated because of what is happening here and now in his community; he seeks a solution in the present moment, and his frustration is met with divine aid. Or to use more Kaplanian god-language: we can use our inner resolve to find the power within us that makes for salvation, steering us from frustration and sin and leading us toward lives lived fully.

The final word of the week is given to Zechariah in the haftarah: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts" (Zech. 4:6). We would do well to remember that in dealing with life's frustrations, it is not by might or power that we can will ourselves to relive the past. But by marshalling the divine spirit within each of us, we can shift our attitude to focus on the present and be our own agents for the positive change that leads us away from frustration and toward inner peace.

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.