Beha’alot’cha

There are some torah readings that just seem to be made for vegetarians, and Beha’alotecha is one of them.  The graphic image of the Israelites feeding upon the quail, stuffing the meat into themselves until it “came out of their nostrils” and then dying “with the meat still stuck between their teeth” is almost too repugnant to bear.  It speaks to us of overweening greed, of the desire for fleshly pleasure fulfilled to the extent of costing the life of the one who indulges too far.  It is both gross and pathetic, seedy and overwhelming. 

The people, often rather unattractive in their behaviour in the wilderness with their complaining and rebelling, their argumentative and sullen responses to Moses’ words to them, are here at their most revolting.  Their failure once again to understand what God is doing for them, their inability to comprehend ideas about freedom, communal responsibility, behavioural limits – leads them to what must be the most explicitly nauseating end in the whole of biblical narrative.

          Early on in the Exodus the newly freed slaves, terrified of what they had done in leaving the security of Egyptian society and worried about simple survival in a hostile wilderness, complained to Moses – “you saved us from slavery and brought us here to this desert to kill us all with starvation and famine?”.

God understood the narrow horizons of the people, the shrivelled imaginations and the visceral fear of a people who had forgotten how to be independent, how to have pride in themselves and the self-confidence necessary to go out and make a life. So that time God showered the Israelite refugees with quail and with the miraculous manna, the food which was said to have tasted like coriander or honey or rich cream – the food that tradition said tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste of. 

          But now, here in the book of Numbers after all the experiences of care and support by God here in the wilderness, this time the situation is different. “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons the leeks and onions and garlic. But now our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all except this manna to look at” (Num 11)

There are a number of problems in this complaint.  Are the people complaining that the diet isn’t varied enough? That manna – even tasting of different things, was still indisputably manna – and a bit boring for that? Are they desperate for something a little more solid? – they specify meat, food that tended to be eaten only on special occasions – and usually connected to the sacrificial system, when meat would be a by product of the worship of God?

Is it specifically Egypt they crave, with the system that may have been slavery but at least it was something they knew and could therefore cope with? Were they saying they didn’t want to break out into a more independent way of being?  Or is it the idea that the food in Egypt was so plentiful and all present that they could take it for free – without responsibility to its production, without obligation to others? 

The manna of course was also available to them for free, but somehow that didn’t count – there was no thought given to the deity who was providing their sustenance, no connection made in their heads between the availability of the miraculous manna and the Creator of the world who was making this every day miracle.

          Whatever the reason – and I imagine it was a combination of reasons, this time both God and Moses found the people’s complaining and self-absorption infuriating and intolerable. This time God gave them just what they said they wanted – in spades – and they died from it.

          When we first came across manna in the early part of the Exodus, we are told that God gave them it in order to test them. But what the test was is left to our imagination.  Rashi tells us the test is of obedience, that God wanted to see if the people would collect the manna in the way that God had commanded – just enough for each day, not keeping it overnight. Not going out to collect it on Shabbat but relying on what was collected before the Shabbat.  Each of these tests of course were failed – the people clearly did not trust that the manna would be there the next morning, that it could not be kept overnight in good condition, that the Shabbat would be somehow special in that no manna would be found but the manna retained would continue to be edible.  The people failed because they were frightened and because they were unimaginative – they had been in slavery too long and all they could construct was the practical concrete concepts around physical survival. 

          When Moses knew he was dying and would not continue with the people into the land he had been taking them to, he wrote a number of speeches explaining to them both the story and the meaning of their history, full of warnings and reminders. Of manna he said “Remember the path along which the eternal your God led you those forty years in the desert. God sent hardships to test you, to see what is in your heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments or not. God made life difficult for you, letting you go hungry and then feeding you manna. And manna was that which neither you nor your ancestors had ever before experienced. This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human being lives, but by all that comes out of God’s mouth” (Deut 8:2-3). 

So Moses understood what the test was – it was not literally about the food, but it was about the people’s willingness to listen and to follow Gods commandments, to accept the limitations about what could and could not be done, and the food was simply the structure around which it would be seen whether or not the people were able to accept the restrictions that following God might place upon them.

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Parashat Beshallach Shabbat Shira

This week we will be reading Parashat Beshallach, which is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of song, because it contains within it the song sung by the grateful survivors of the escape from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Parashat Beshallach always coincides with the week we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees, a time when traditionally we understand that the trees are beginning to awake from the dormancy of winter and their sap begins to rise.  As we celebrate this minor festival which was originally a cut-off date for tax purposes, we become more aware of the nature that is around us and that we often forget to notice in the busyness of our lives. There are a number of customs that have grown up around this date. Planting trees, eating the fruits specific to the land of Israel, grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates, and some say a carob or etrog too. There is a Kabbalistic custom to eat 15 different varieties of fruit on the fifteenth of Shevat – a sort of inflated “five a day”. There is also a Kabbalistic custom of having a Seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning and ten different fruits and four cups of wine would be consumed in order to help complete the creation of the world. I have always liked the idea of eating and drinking being a good way to perfect our world !

But there is another custom that is very old and is connected with this weekend, specifically with Shabbat Shira, and that is to feed the birds.  This week we read of the despair that followed the elation after the people had crossed over the Reed Sea and the Egyptians were no longer pursuing them. They are hungry and thirsty. The water they find is bitter and unsuitable for drinking. There is little food for them to eat. They begin to moan and complain “The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness, and they said to them : “If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread. For you (Moses and Aaron) have brought us into this wilderness in order to starve the whole assembly to death” (Exodus 16:2-3). What followed of course is the appearance of Manna and of quail for them to eat: “God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion — that I may test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. But on the sixth day, when they prepare what they have brought in, it shall prove to be twice the amount they gather daily.” …and In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” — for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “That is the bread which God has given you to eat. This is what God has commanded: Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in his tent.” Exodus 16: selected from v4-v 16)

But we are told in the midrash that on the first Shabbat after the people had been collecting the manna, they went out on to try to collect some on that day too – even though they had been given twice the amount the previous day in order not to have go collect on Shabbat. And Rashi tells us that there were people who went even further in their wicked behaviour – these people not only went out to collect on Shabbat, but had previously scattered some of their extra manna around the camp in order for people to find it and to mistrust Moses and what he said God was saying. But, says the Midrash, birds came early in the morning and they ate up all the scattered manna in order to protect the reputations of both Moses and God, and no manna was found when the people came looking on Shabbat.  Because of this extraordinary kindness, our tradition is to feed the birds this Shabbat especially to thank them.

There is a second reason often cited for our custom of feeding the birds on this Shabbat particularly, and that is to do with the name of the sidra – Shira. God having rescued us from the pursuing Egyptians is praised in song, but singing is the special skill of birds so there is a mystical tradition that we must repay them for appropriating their particular worship style. Hence, we feed them.

Now I don’t really think that either of these stories have much grounding in reality, but I do notice that while Spring is marked with the onset of Tu B’Shvat, so often there is a turn for the worse in the weather, and that the birds, having survived many weeks of poor weather and poor hunting already, could do with a little help, and for that reason it seems to me to be a good thing to do – to spread a little birdseed or hang a few fat-balls and feel ourselves to be doing our bit for keeping the bird populations going.  The stories tell us that we are paying the birds back for their acts of kindness, but while that is an important lesson to learn, so is the lesson of caring for our world simply because it is our world, because we are co-creators with God in this world, because it is our responsibility to keep it going and to look after it. Our tradition also tells the story that when God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! Take care not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Midrash Rabbah, Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:13)