Parshat BeHaalotcha is one of the most tragic parshas, and it has a crucial lesson to share with us. Our parsha marks the end of the dream. Bnei Yisrael have just spent a year at the foot of Mount Sinai, basking in the presence of G-d, and the time has come to move on. Moshe is excited and tries to persuade his father-in-law Yitro to come with them to Eretz Yisrael, telling him of the promised goodness there (Bamidbar 10:29-32). In the end, not only does Yitro decline to join them, but Moshe himself will not enter the Promised Land, and before things are going to get better, they will get much worse. Every time the camp begins to move, Moshe declares “Get up, O Lord, and disperse your enemies, and your foes shall flee before you” (Bamidbar 10:35), but soon it becomes clear that the real enemies are not external; they are inside the hearts of Israel.
Complaints: Worse than Sins
Moshe’s declaration as the ark sets forth represents the height of anticipation – the people are on the move, they are heading toward Israel. But shortly thereafter, things quickly start to deteriorate. The parents will all die in the wilderness, their offspring will wander the desert for years. What terrible sin could have caused this to happen? Even the golden calf, blatant idol worship at the most sacred moment of connection between G-d and His people, had an atonement and was forgiven. What could possibly be worse than that? What is the transgression that cannot be fixed?
Our parsha, and the parshas that follow it, contain a series of stories in which Am Yisrael fail repeatedly. The people complain about the lack of meat in the desert, Miriam and Aaron speak badly of Moshe and his wife, leading to Miriam’s being stricken and quarantined for a week outside the camp. Later, the spies bring back a bad report about the Land of Israel, and the people rebel against the authority of Moshe and Aaron. What is going on here?
All the mishaps which accompany Israel in these parshas can be summed up in one word: Complaints. Am Yisrael may be a chosen people, but they are a nation of whiners, and it gets them into serious trouble. But what’s so bad about complaining? After all, there is no prohibition against it, and it’s one of the most natural human tendencies. In order to understand why it is such a big deal, we must examine the complaints themselves and see what underlies them. The evil is not in the very fact that they complained, but in what their complaints reveal about their overall outlook and their relationship toward reality.
Past, Present and Future
The problems begin when Moshe declares, “Get up, O Lord, and disperse your enemies.” Immediately afterwards, “the people start muttering, and it was evil in the ears of G-d, and G-d heard and became furious” (Bamidbar 11:1). The “muttering” implies discontent, but there is no complaint explicitly mentioned. This comes in order to teach us an important lesson: The content of a complaint is rarely the reason for it. At best, it may be the excuse for it. Complaints usually stem from an underlying issue beyond their actual content and one who doesn’t understand this labors under the illusion that if only the complaint would be addressed, the complainer will be satisfied, an illusion which can afflict both the complainer and the one seeking to help her. Some people have an essentially negative outlook on life. They are sure that everyone is out to get them, positive that they have just missed out on the opportunity that would have made all the difference. They are chronically aware of what they lack, just as they fail to acknowledge what they have.
An example of this attitude can be seen in our parsha:
And the mixed multitude that was among them became filled with a craving, and the people of Israel started crying too, and they said, “who will feed us meat?” We remember that fish that we could eat for free in Egypt, and the squashes and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now our souls are dry and there is nothing before our eyes but Manna. (Bamidbar 11:4-6)
Complaints are contagious. The discontent begins with the mixed multitude, and soon everyone has lost it altogether.
One who indulges in complaint is liable to see everything around her as unpleasant and lacking, and any other reality as preferable to the situation at hand. Nonetheless, it is truly remarkable the degree of distortion that allows the nation to see even slavery in Egypt as preferable to a lack of a choice array of vegetables. If we recall, Egypt greatly embittered the lives of the Israelites, enslaved them and killed their sons. Yet now it is somehow recalled with longing and nostalgia, as though it were an Eden lost. Most absurd of all is the claim that in Egypt they could eat for free. If it was true, it was true in the way that an animal eats for free. An animal is property. The master feeds it so that it can continue to serve him.
Not only have the complainers rapidly romanticized their brutal past, they are blind to the bounty and wonder of that which lies right in front of them. They complain about the manna, a miraculous food that literally falls free from the sky, and the Torah feels the need to interrupt the narrative by inserting three verses in manna’s defense, lest the complainer’s slander go unanswered (11:7-9).
In response to their complaint, G-d gives them meat “until it will come out of your nostrils and make you nauseous, for you have rejected Hashem who is in your presence and cried before Him, saying, ‘why did we ever leave Egypt?’” (Bamidbar 11:20). Their desire for meat caused them to reject G-d, and ultimately makes them sick of meat as well. It doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that it was an illusion to think that giving them meat would solve the problem. Beyond the fact that they had totally reversed their memory of the past and twisted their perception of the present, beyond the spoiled narrow-mindedness of their ungrateful muttering, does it really seem possible that the most important thing in life, worthy of national sobbing and even wanting to return to Egypt, could be meat?
It was possible to repent and move on from the sin of the golden calf, but when the entire world view is twisted to see only the bad in everything, there is no moving forward. As far as “being” and “doing” are concerned, a sin in the world of “doing” can be overcome, but when its very root lies in the “being” itself, when it becomes woven into the fabric of a person’s internal reality, then even divine forgiveness doesn’t help, for the change must come from inside.
This lack of perspective, alas, is not only a thing of the past. Hoshea Freidman Ben-Shalom, head of the Beit Yisrael Mechina, a pre-army study program which puts an emphasis on social involvement, sees the generation which left Egypt as a parallel to our time. We live in a uniquely awesome era, a century more important for Am Yisrael than any other in the last two thousand years, yet we focus our attention on the most insignificant of trivialities, it is encumbant apon us to awaken to a perspective about the greatness of that which is happening around us.
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir
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