Parashat Be'Haalotecha- Cultivating Cravings
In this week’s parasha, Parashat Behaalotcha, the Torah relates the episode of the "mitonenin," those who complained about the man. The Torah describes how the ‘asafsuf’, the "riffraff in the midst" complained about the man they received each day in the desert. They expressed their craving (ta’ava) for meat, and recalled the vegetables they ate in Egypt. God was angered and Moshe was distressed by their complaint. In response, God decrees that they will eat meat for an entire month, until it "comes out of their nostrils," as they rejected God and complained to Him.
How is it possible that this generation, often referred to as ‘dor hade’ah’ (the generation of knowledge), those who left Egypt and stood at Har Sinai, could complain about food? It is important to realize, as the Kuzari (1:93; see also R. Yehonatan Eibeshitz Chapter 1 Derush 2) writes, that the Jews in the desert were on a very high spiritual plane, and therefore the Torah often magnifies their shortcomings. Unfortunately, many are unaware of this very important principle in the study of Biblical episodes, and are quick to attribute grave sins to our forefathers. However, it is still difficult to understand the ‘desire’ described by the Torah, and therefore we must find a deeper explanation for this verse.
David HaMelech, in Sefer Tehillim, offers an insight into this episode. The verse teaches that "they were seized with craving in the desert" (106:14). What was the nature of this craving? The commentaries explain that the while theoretically the man had taste and nutritional value, it wasn’t appealing. Part of enjoyment of eating is in the presentation, texture, smell and taste of the food. The man lacked these features. Eating the man was like being fed intravenously. The Jewish people craved the pleasure associated with eating. If so, then this episode is even more troubling! Why were the Jewish people in the desert so intent upon deriving pleasure from the man?
Some explained, based upon the words of the Sefat Emet and the Meshech Chochma, the Jewish people felt that here was no religious challenge when eating man. Only one who is offered meat, a food which one craves, is one able to demonstrate his ability to suppress and even conquer his yetzer hara (evil inclination). The generation of the desert, the dor hade’ah, didn’t naturally have desires; they needed to artificially cultivate cravings, as the verse states, "hitavu ta’avah." They desired the ability to live a more difficult religious life, one filled with challenges and sacrifices. They complained that their "soul was dry," i.e. their will and desire was parched, and they wished to demonstrate that their desires were in accordance with God’s will. In other words, their real desire was to worship God on a higher level. If so, then what was their sin?
The Jewish people apparently didn’t understand the nature of the yetzer hara. They wished to invite the yetzer hara into their life but did not realize how difficult and challenging this would be. That is why the Rabbis insisted that we make "fences" around the Torah; they understood the strength and power of the evil inclination. The Jewish people cultivated a craving which they didn’t even have, and by inviting the yetzer hara into their daily lives, they opened themselves up to unknown challenges.
At the conclusion of this episode, God punishes the people with a severe plague. In turn, they name the place "kivrot hata’avah" – "the burial place of craving," and not "the burial place of those who craved." The Jewish people apparently learned their lesson. They did not name the place after the people who desired, but rather after the desire itself, which they learned, the hard way, was a source of trouble.
The Torah tells us that the Jewish people traveled "from kivrot hata’avah to chatzerot"," which may be understood as "from the burial place of craving to the wide open areas." Our desires and cravings may lead us to open, unprotected areas.
Finally, the Moshe tells the people that if they wish to eat meat, they must "purify" themselves. Although we eat meat, and engage in the secular world, we must realize the dangers. In business, leisure, and even on the Internet, it is so easy to slip. The Torah is warning us to be extra careful, and to participate in these activities only from a place of sanctity.
It is especially appropriate that we read this parasha towards the beginning of the summer. During the summer we are often looser; our guard is down and it is very easy to make mistakes. We invite the yetzer hara into our lives, but he is the guest who never leaves. Therefore the verse tells us to "be strong and strengthen your hearts"; we need to put up our guards before the summer months.