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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat B'ha·alot'kha
Numbers 8:1-12:16
June 8, 1996    11 Sivan 5756

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The nation Moses brought out of Egypt shared neither his vision nor faith. Miracles did not quash its murmuring against him. The Rabbis tally up some ten incidents following the Exodus in which the Israelites bitterly contested God's will and Moses's leadership. Fear of the future even diluted their recollection of past suffering; the perceived security of slavery was preferable to the risks of freedom. Popular unrest soon reversed any prospect of a quick journey to the Promised Land.

Thus the Torah picks up the narrative this week with Moses inviting his father–in–law to join Israel on its march to Canaan: "We are setting out for the place of which the Lord has said, I will give it to you.' Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel (Numbers 10:29)." Led by the Ark of the Covenant and protected by the Lord's cloud which hovered above them, the people stood ready to cross the wilderness.

But adversity soon found them wanting. No matter how pure and sacred, their encampment was hardly a five–star hotel. "The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord (Numbers 11:1)." And immediately after that brief episode, we are treated to another with more specificity. "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)!'"

This second episode turns out to be in ugly protest against an unrelieved diet of manna. In the process, the instigators would have us believe that in Egypt as slaves they enjoyed a varied and plentiful diet of fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. "Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to (Numbers 11:6)!"

How quickly do new hardships erode the memory of earlier ones! The austerity of freedom is more unbearable than its absence. Egyptian bondage could never have been as discomforting as the self–reliance needed to survive the wilderness. Unhinged by fear, we lose sight of the future and reinvent the past.

The Rabbis had difficulty imagining that the eruption of such resistance to Moses was motivated by material concerns. They posited a deeper dynamic. The demand for meat was a pretext masking repudiation of God. The divine regimen which came with freedom, which alone could invest it with purpose, nobility and meaning, was simply too taxing. The "riffraff" did not come from outside Israel; they were not the Egyptians who had attached themselves to Israel in its hour of triumph. Far worse, they were Israel's elders and leaders, and if they deemed it necessary to abandon the vision of Moses and to return to the "fleshpots" of Egypt (Exodus 16:3), then surely this was a view shared fully by the masses. The uprising was not a detour dictated by foreign elements but a groundswell. Moses's stewardship hung in the balance because eventually a people gets the leadership it deserves. The lesson of the Torah is that miracles don't change human nature. They may set it aside for a time, but it will come back to prevail in all its frustrating intractability. The children of Israel had been born and bred in slavery. Miracles would not strip them overnight of their slave mentality. It went with them into freedom and reasserted itself in the face of the slightest hardship. Only time and testing would gradually erase the timidity imprinted in their hearts. Or in the sober words of Maimonides: "A sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible. And therefore man, according to his nature, is not capable of abandoning suddenly all to which he was accustomed."

It is for this reason that the Torah settled for a sacrificial system not unlike that to be found throughout the pagan world. Maimonides believed that the Tabernacle and Temple were not an end in themselves, but merely a step toward a more spiritual form of worship. Emerging out of the matrix of the ancient Near East, Israel could rise no higher than a temple cult, albeit one redirected to the worship of a single, supreme being.

Similarly, Maimonides observed, a nation just freed from long bondage lacked the resolve to defend its freedom. The Torah goes out of its way to stress that as the Israelites left Egypt, they did not take the most direct route to Canaan: "Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt (Exodus 13:17).'" The Philistines were a bellicose nation, and Israel was not yet ready for military battle.

And when the ultimate test came (in next week's parasha), Israel failed it. The courage and conviction to take the land by conquest, to move beyond its state of utter dependence on divine interference was still missing. The dismal report of the ten spies who scouted the Promised Land flowed not from what they saw but how they felt. On seeing the large size of its inhabitants, they declared lamentably, "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them (Numbers 13:33)." Their mental state determined what they were capable of taking in.

Redemption alone could not turn abject slaves into fighters for freedom. Reluctantly, God concluded that the generation of the Exodus had to be allowed to perish in the wilderness. Only a nation reared in freedom would take the risks needed to secure it permanently.

Alas, there are no shortcuts in history. A self–limiting God does not make things easy for us. The scars of past experience will not be wiped away benevolently. Outgrow them we must, but on our own, through constant struggle and setbacks. We are fated to be the clumsy masters of our recalcitrant souls. While God is ready to strengthen our resolve, progress does not spring from miracles.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch 's commentary on Parashat B'ha·alot'kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.