Parshat Beha’alotcha: Realistic Recollections and Moving Forward
A graduate of OTS’s Straus-Amiel Emissary Program, Rabbi Daniel Epstein is one half of the senior Rabbinic team at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London’s West End, together with his wife, Rebbetzin Ilana Epstein
Transitions are challenging.
If the Book of Numbers had a theme, this would be it. Genesis is about family, Exodus about nationhood, Leviticus is about structure and holiness and Numbers is the Children of Israel coming to terms with freedom and, ultimately, responsibility.
It is a difficult psychological and spiritual journey. As slaves in Egypt, we were not expected (or allowed) to think for ourselves. In fact, the statement in Exodus 12 of “HaChodesh haZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim” – “This month shall be for YOU as a first of the Months” – indicates that the first mitzvah given to the Nation as a whole is about control of your OWN time.
The challenges of coming to terms with their new reality of Divine guidance, Manna from heaven, water available in a barren wilderness and so many other miracles are, all at once comforting and surreal. The People, beyond the “miracles and wonders” of the Dead Sea, the Revelation at Sinai and more, cannot fully grasp the change that they are experiencing, and they begin to gossip amongst themselves.
Tehillim (Psalms 106) gives us quite a stark insight into their difficulty in coming to terms with the sheer power of God’s protection. For example:
“They rejected the desirable land and put no faith in His promise/They grumbled in their tents and disobeyed the LORD.”
One of the most extraordinary declarations of their “feeling lost” is in the form of rose-coloured nostalgia (Numbers 11:4-6):
“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “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!”
The word that jumps out at us is “free”. As if there was nothing connected to the food or the brutal slavery that existed. And furthermore, is this really true?
Abravanel (1437-1508) comments that the “fish they ate for free in Egypt” was because of the natural conditions of the Nile and that fish was so cheap that it could be given to the workers.
But the real “freedom” they were alluding to was the freedom from having to take on the enormous responsibility of God’s commandments. Subliminal in its context, but the basis of much of their discontentment.
If the Children of Israel would have been psychologically capable of the full transition – not from slavery to freedom, but from slavery to Divine service – the Book of Numbers would have played out very differently.
Nostalgia which blindsides context is what happened to Lot’s Wife. She looked back inappropriately and was physically and metaphorically frozen in time and space.
We need to have the faith and trust in God to move forward, even into uncertainty, and not harp back to reminiscences of a past that never actually was.