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Parashat 06/29/2011

Parashat Chukat

by Robert Rabinoff


…for there is no food and no water, and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food [the manna].  Gd sent the fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people.  A large multitude of Israel died. (21:5-6)

Rashi: Let the serpent come who was punished for speaking slander [i.e. the serpent in the Garden of Eden] and punish those who slander [i.e. complained about the manna].  Let the serpent come for whom all foods taste like one [i.e. like the dust of the earth] and punish those whose one food [i.e. the manna] had many tastes [i.e. it tasted like whatever they wanted to taste].

Our Sages tell us that the Torah could only have been given to those who eat manna.  They further tell us that the manna was completely absorbed in the body, nourishing it perfectly, and with no need to excrete – this is why the people complained about its insubstantiality.  In fact, they were in a sense correct – the food was not “substantial” in the sense of containing material “substance” – it was purely a spiritual food, and the lesson it taught was that even the material world is ultimately sustained through spiritual input (Devarim 8:3 — …not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of Gd does man live.).  Our Parashah makes it clear that the lesson was not completely absorbed in the people’s consciousness; indeed it is a lesson we still have to learn.


Although it is not indicated explicitly, our Parashah shifts in time from the beginning of the 40 years of wandering in the desert to the end of that period.  All three of the “shepherds of Israel” – Miriam, Aharon and Moshe Rabbeinu would pass from the scene in this last year; Miriam and Aharon both pass on in our Parashah, and the decree that Moshe would not be allowed to lead Israel into the Land, or even to enter it himself, is also found here.  I would like to explore a possible connection between the passing of the leadership of Israel from Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, and the people’s complaints about the manna.


When discussing the sin of the spies (Parashat Shelach) some commentators try to exonerate them (partially) by pointing to a noble motivation.  The life the people were leading in the desert was totally miraculous.  There were several million people and a great number of animals, all trekking through a trackless desert with no food or water.  (This is roughly half the population of the modern State of Israel!)  Water was provided through the miraculous Well which existed in the merit of Miriam, and food was provided by the manna, given through the merit of Moshe.  The people were afforded protection from the sun and from harmful creatures by the Clouds of Glory, which the Midrash tells us were in the merit of Aharon.  Thus the “three shepherds” are associated with miraculous living.  Upon entry to the Land, life would continue to be miraculous, but the miracles would be more hidden.  No longer would the manna fall – one would have to plow and sow, reap and bake, in order to have one’s daily bread.  No longer would the Well provide water – one would be dependent on the springs and rivers, and they of course are dependent on having sufficient rain, which is provided by Gd in proportion to the appropriateness of our actions.  Similarly, our ability to conquer the Land and live in it securely is dependent on Gd’s protection, and that protection would come through “natural” means, based again on the appropriateness of our actions.  The spies attempted to dissuade the people from leaving the “miraculous” life and entering “natural” life, fearing the results of their sinfulness.  In a sense the spies were correct – the people did sin, Gd’s protection was removed, and we feel the consequences – exile and the loss of the Holy Temple – to this day.


Now living a “miraculous” life is a bit of a two-edged sword.  It brings to the foreground of our awareness just how terribly dependent on H” we are.  When the miracle of life is hidden behind natural processes, we can convince ourselves that we are independent beings, interacting with other independent beings, on the stage of space and time that is Nature.  The laws of cause and effect appear to hold, and we feel that we can influence the outcome of events by our direct actions.  We are individuated, which is good, since we are in fact each one of us individuals, each with our own strengths and each with our own unique perspective to contribute to the fabric of society and the fabric of the cosmos.  On the other hand, if individuation gets out of hand, we begin to think that we are only separate from Gd, and that we can choose to go against Gd’s Will.  It was, apparently, Gd’s plan in creation to give us this freedom of choice, freedom to make mistakes, freedom to sin, freedom to be a little bit too free.  Ultimately of course, it is this apparent separation of our individual selves from Gd that leads to terrible negative consequences – fear of loss, greed, corruption, and the “shortness of spirit” we find in the Israelites in our Parashah.


R. Bachya (Spain, 1st half of the 11th century, quoted in Al haRishonim by R. Aryeh Brueckheimer, pp175-6) comments that when the Israelites complained about the manna what they were really complaining about was their special relationship with Gd, their (our!) “chosenness,” which, as we all know by now, carries with it special responsibilities.  We are called upon to be holy, to transcend our material natures as much as possible, to let our souls elevate the material world (one might say to convert all our food into manna) instead of letting the material world, with its fleeting pleasures, drag the soul down.  It is as if Gd was “too close for comfort.”  Communion with Gd may be the ultimate bliss for the soul, but it is hard work for the body!  Gd responded by demonstrating the result of loss of closeness with Him – the special Providence that was protecting the nation from the snakes and scorpions and other creatures of the desert was withdrawn, and many became, well, snake-bit.  Did Gd withdraw that protection, or did the people opt out from their side?


The “three shepherds” on the other hand solved the apparent paradox of individuation.  They remained individuals – Moshe could not do what Aharon and Miriam did, and the same with the others.  On the other hand their souls were not at all attached to their bodies; they remained pure reflections of Gd’s infinite majesty.  When they were clothed in their individual bodies, they took on the form of individuals, but in their essential nature they remained infinite and unbounded.  I believe that when it became apparent that the nation had quite a bit more growth to go through before it got anywhere near their level, their ability to lead became compromised, and it was no longer necessary nor desirable for them to retain their individual, finite aspects.  They were able to slough off their bodies and exist on a purely spiritual level.  Our Sages describe this effortless transition as dying by a kiss – Gd effortlessly and painlessly draws the soul out of the body “like drawing a hair out of milk.”


Individuation is perhaps the most fundamental process in creation.  Creation begins with Gd alone, infinite, unbounded.  There is nothing individual, nothing outside of Gd.  The process of creation brings difference into the picture, like the rakia (“heavens”) which divide the “upper waters” from the “lower waters.”  Along with the process of individuation is the process of growth and expansion, the process by which simple structures become more complex and more highly integrated.  Every parent has watched (and hopefully helped!) this process in their children.  Eventually, in the human being, the mind and personality can expand to a value of universality, where they transcend individuation, and reunite with the infinite ocean of being whence they arose.  It is in the perfect balance between individuality and universality that the very purpose of creation is fulfilled, and each of us has the potential to achieve that perfect balance.  When we do, we become an individual in the fullest sense of the word, and one that Gd is proud to have created.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 29

[R. Elazar haKappar] used to say … against your will are you formed, against your will are you born, against your will do you live, against your will do you die, and against your will are you destined to give account and reckoning before the Supreme King of kings, the Holy  One blessed be He.

After our discussion of the process of individuation, some of you may have thought better of embarking on the whole adventure.  R. Elazar haKappar comes to tell us that we have no choice.  (Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer, famously remarked, “We have to believe in free will.  We have no choice!” – thanks to Chaya Green for that one.)  Our Mishnah focuses on our responsibility when we do individuate – we are going to give an accounting for our lives, both for what we did do (“account”) and for what we neglected to do (“reckoning”) during our time on earth.  R. Bachya points out that the result of behaving properly is unimaginable bliss, as our individuality is almost swallowed up in Gd’s universality.  As we pointed out some weeks ago, this is risky business, but the potential rewards are infinite.  And we must always remember that Gd is not our adversary in this whole business – Gd is on our side, pulling for us to succeed, full of mercy, helping us get up and dust ourselves off whenever we slip up.  As our Sages tell us, “more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants it to suckle.”  Hard as it may be to believe, as much as we want oneness with Gd, Gd wants oneness with each one of us!