by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld
This week’s reading includes one of the strangest episodes in the entire Torah.
The Jewish People have been out of Egypt for over a year, headed slowly but surely towards the Promised Land. Despite the harsh environment of the desert wilderness, they are being miraculously sustained by the protective “Clouds of Glory,” fresh drinking water, and Manna from Heaven. They also have ample herds of sheep. Nonetheless, the Torah tells us:
“The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving, and the Children of Israel also wept once more, and said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now, our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to anticipate but the Manna.” [Num. 11:4-6]
If you didn’t know anything about the Manna, you might sympathize. Those who are supposedly G-d’s special people, taken out of Egypt with great miracles, experiencing countless miracles in the wilderness since then — would it be so hard for G-d to put a bit of variety on the menu?
Therefore, to better understand the impropriety of their complaint, the parshah goes on to describe this supposedly “monotonous” Manna. It turns out that Manna was not only tasty, but was miraculously convenient and versatile. It was a perfect food! So why are they complaining — even weeping?
Even more puzzling than their complaints is G-d’s reaction:
“G-d will give you meat and you will eat … until it comes out of your nose, and becomes nauseating to you, because you have rejected G-d who is in your midst, and you have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we leave Egypt?’” [v. 18-20].
Why does G-d respond with such harsh words? What is the lesson the Torah is teaching us?
It’s instructive to look at the origin of the concept of craving. The Torah presents life as a series of tests, and the very first test is in Gan Eden – the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Chavah (Eve) are tested with the forbidden fruit:
And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a craving to the eyes… [Gen. 3:6]
Given that this is the very first test, apparently controlling one’s craving for certain foods is the paradigm for actualizing our human potential.
Of course, we all know the outcome of that first test. Not only do Adam and Chavah give in to the craving and eat from the forbidden fruit, they subsequently try to dodge responsibility for their actions. The next twenty generations in the Torah fail to correct these errors until Avraham (Abraham) arrives and not only takes responsibility for his own actions, he does what he can to help others too.
Interestingly, this topic of craving doesn’t come up again for a long time. Many human errors are catalogued in the Torah – idolatry, robbery, murder, gossip, etc. – but craving is never mentioned.
Fast forward to this week’s parshah. The scions of Avraham’s mission – the Jewish People – are on their way to the Land that G-d had promised to Avraham that his descendants would inherit. They have the Torah from Mt. Sinai and are a mere few days’ journey away from their destination when this craving and complaining occurs. Despite their daily fill of Manna – the most refined food possible – the people crave more. Apparently, the Exodus, Mt. Sinai and the Manna itself have not cured that aspect of human nature that falls prey to craving.
Surely there is nothing sinful about craving in itself; that’s merely a biological function of the body that G-d gave us. What becomes sinful is when the fulfillment of the craving becomes an end unto itself, at the expense of other considerations, including simply good manners. Thus, those who have let their craving short-circuit their human dignity die that day in the wilderness, and the Torah aptly names the location after the catastrophe:
He named the place Kivrot-haTaavah (The Graves of Craving), because there they buried the people who had been craving. (11.34).
Until now, craving was still something to be fulfilled – if you have a craving, fill it! The lesson of this parshah is that a baal taavah – a person who has made chasing physical cravings part of his persona – will never be satisfied. If you can’t control your cravings, you’ll be buried along with them.
There are some people who can eat just one potato chip, or take just one lick of ice cream, and then put the treat aside. They are in the minority. Billions of dollars of GDP is based on the majority’s inability to control their craving.
Unfortunately, chasing after craving can have very serious physical consequences. The lesson of the parshah is that for most of us, the G-dly path is not to chase after the craving to begin with, and certainly not to complain when your food is perfectly healthy but merely not fulfilling every craving.