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Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5773 — 05/22/2013

Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5773 — 05/22/2013

They journeyed from the mountain of Hashem a three-day distance, and the Ark of the covenant of Hashem journeyed before them a three-day distance to search out for them a resting place. (10:33)

They fled from the mountain of Gd like a child running away from school… (Ramban to verse 35, cited in the Artscroll Chumash)

The people took to seeking complaints (11:1)

But now our life is parched, there is nothing, we have nothing to anticipate but the manna (11:6)

But the men who had ascended with him said, ‘We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!’ (13:31 parashat Shelach)

Korach … separated himself … They gathered against Moses and against Aaron (16:1-3 parashat Korach)

We mentioned 4 years ago that there are three instances of punishment in out parashah (the first three above), and to them I have appended a couple more from the next two weeks’ parshiyot.  It’s a litany of disasters, one after the other, that turns a 10-day to two-week journey from Egypt to Israel into a 40-year ordeal of wandering in the wilderness.  It’s characterized by incident after incident where the people’s faith in Gd is tested and found lacking.  To paraphrase the common expression, You can take the people out of slavery, but you can’t take the slavery out of the people.

I think if we look carefully at all these incidents, we see a pattern that can give us some insight into the underlying mechanics of creation.  First, let’s get an idea about what we mean by a lack of faith in Gd.  We must begin by acknowledging that our understanding of the dynamics of the generation of the Exodus is distorted by the fact that they were on a much higher spiritual level than we are.  They, after all, were able to see Gd’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” both in Egypt and at the Sea, and were able to receive the Torah from Gd directly, and then from Moshe Rabbeinu, a prophet sui generis.  If they lacked faith in Gd, after having had this level of experience, it can hardly be compared to our lack of faith, which is generally based on no direct experience of Gd’s presence at all.  That said, Gd apparently expected more of the people and was prepared to apply corrective measures to bring them up to speed.

Perhaps the first case is clearest.  Ramban, quoting the Midrash, tells us that the people eagerly left Mt. Sinai, elsewhere described as “Gd’s mountain,” where Gd’s presence was strongest.  We know from both the text in the book of Exodus, and from various Midrashim, that the people felt that the experience of being close to Gd, of communicating with Gd directly, was uncomfortable, and actually downright dangerous.  In other words, their physical frames were not yet prepared for the intensity of the experience.  They sought to distance themselves from Gd, both literally and figuratively.

Why do people complain?  Generally it is because they are uncomfortable with a situation.  When there is no actual phyical basis for that discomfort, we can only ascribe the complaints to a psychological discomfort.  In this case, no cause at all is specified, only that the people started complaining.  We must conclude that in some way their life wasn’t going according to their expectations, and they gave vent to their frustration.

Immediately after this, and despite the negative consequences of their first complaints, the people began complaining about the manna, and demanded more “substantial” food.  As we have noted in previous years, the manna was a kind of bridge between the Divine and the mundane.  It could taste like whatever the eater desired to taste, and it was perfect nutrition, completely absorbed by the body, with no waste produced.  It also was a clear, external indicator of the spiritual status of those who gathered it.  For those on a very high level the manna landed at the door of their tents; they just had to “fall out of bed” and pick up their daily allotment.  Those on a lower level had to walk progressively greater distances.  How embarrassing!  Everyone saw you strolling along with your omer baskets, trying to look nonchalant, looking for your daily bread, when theirs was right outside the door.  Their pity is worse than the Egyptians’ contempt!  Maybe, you think, it would be better if we all had to go out to the fields and grow our own food.

As we have discussed in parashat Shelach, some commentators hold that the Spies’ reason for attempting to dissuade the people from leaving the desert and possessing the Land of Israel was their fear that the nation would be unable to maintain the spiritual level necessary to remain in the Land.  (In retrospect they had a very good point.  In fact, for better than 2/3 of our history, we have not been able to sustain ourselves in the Land of Israel.)  Perhaps the people’s sin was not that they felt they would fail to live up to the high standards of the Land, but that they refused even to make the attempt.

Finally, in parashat Korach, we find that Korach and his band of rebels separated themselves from the rest of the community.  Korach was unsatisfied with his distinguished position as a Levite – he wanted to be the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and he was prepared to destroy the entire community to attain that goal.  What an ego!

I believe we can see in all these incidents a common thread: there is a problem with individuation.  Those of us who have children know that the process of maturation is also one of individuation – the child separates from his parents and develops his own personality as he grows up.  At times (“terrible twos” or teenage years) this process can be difficult both for the parent and the child.  I think the reason it can be so difficult is that it is a very frightening process – the child is forced to leave his “comfort zone,” where everything is taken care of for him by the parent, and assume greater and greater responsibility for himself, both materially and spiritually.

This process takes place at the fundamental level of creation as well.  In the beginning, Gd is all that exists, infinite and unmanifest.  Then, with 10 utterances, Gd created all the forms and phenomena of the physical and spiritual worlds.  This is a process of individuation as well, and all created beings undergo this process.  However, as we discussed in the last few parshiyot of Sefer Shemot this year, the process of individuation is also a process of growth of systems in complexity and sophistication.  In the case of the human being, this growth in sophistication is experienced as a broader and deeper awareness, one which is more and more able to reflect our infinite source.  We begin to experience “infinity in a grain of sand”  (not quite William Blake).

At this point, a different problem with individuation arises, and it is this problem that I believe is germane to our passages.  It is certainly Gd’s Will that we not remain static, but that we grow closer to Gd, closer to our own infinite nature.  But now the problem is not that we are getting further and further away from the infinite, but that we are getting perhaps too close to the infinite!  Consider – all our lives our thinking and our perception has been within the boundaries of our existence.  Now we are becoming more and more unbounded – the boundaries, which used to be essential to our self-image, are growing more ethereal, more indistinct.  We are growing and becoming more perfect, to be sure, but we feel that we are losing ourselves in the process.

  • Our forefathers ran away from Mt. Sinai – they experienced such closeness with Gd that they almost felt smothered by it.
  • They complained – Torah doesn’t say about what; perhaps it is indicating to us that there was no specific focus of the complaint, just a general malaise or vertigo, associated with a growth process that was proceding too fast for the people to assimilate.
  • They complained about the manna – this purely spiritual food was blurring their connection to their bodies; they wanted meat, something substantial and earthy, to bring them “back to earth.”
  • The spies were afraid that living a miraculous existence, one dependent on one’s connection to the infinite, would be impossible.
  • Korach too was in a desperate fight to maintain his individual ego, rather than being “merely” a servant of Gd.

To be, or not to be, that is the question.  I won’t speculate as to Shakespeare’s ultimate meaning, but I think we can assert that there are two kinds of being that we need to be concerned with.  There is Being, the infinite state of pure existence, which is both our source and our goal, and there is our being as an individual.  If we cannot Be, then we are adrift in the ocean, detached from our true self, puny, at the mercy of the forces of nature.  But if we cannot be an individual, we have no mechanism to experience either pure Being or our individual relationship to the infinite.  The trick is to maintain a balance between our individuality and universality.  Perhaps this is why Gd told Moshe Rabbeinu that nobody can see His face and live – pure Being will so overwhelm the individuality that it would be completely crushed.  Instead, Gd held His hand over Moshe until He had passed by, and then gave him a glimpse of His “back.”  In some way the experience of infinity must be attenuated somehow, in order not to consume the individual completely.  I guess we’ll have to wait till we reach Moshe Rabbeinu’s level to find out.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 13

He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them: Go forth and see which is the proper path to which a person should cleave. … R. Elazar said: A good heart.  [R. Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are included in his.

R. Lau cites the Maharal of Prague as explaining that as a “wellspring” (see Mishnah 2:11), R. Elazar was connected to the source of all things.  Thus it was he who recognized that the source of personal development is a good heart.  The whole purpose of a human being is to be an individual entity, but to be connected with pure Existence, the “source of all things.”  This connection allows us to be a conduit for all Gd’s goodness to flow into the world, as it says of Abraham: through you will all the peoples of the earth be blessed.  How is this connection made?  Just as love forms a bond between two people, so as our love of Gd grows (Gd’s love for us is always infinite and unconditional!) our bond with Him grows.  A good heart, one which links our individuality with Gd’s universality, is indeed the ultimate “good way”!