This week the Torah tells us that the Children of Israel once again complained; they wanted meat in the desert. They recalled what they considered a better time in a better place–Egypt! Like many of us who are discontented with the world we live in, they spoke about the good old days.
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 will eat in Egypt free of charge; and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now, our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to anticipate but the manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6)
The commentators are bothered by two questions; one grammatical, the other, historical.
The literal words of the complainers were, “we remember the fish we will eat.” (zacharnu es hadagah asher naochal) They did not use the past tense; “we remember the fish we ate.” (achalnu). Why do they complain about fish that was to be eaten in the future, instead of the fish they ate in the past?
Another question the Talmud and later commentaries ask concerns the fish; If they were not even given straw for the bricks they had to make, surely they did not receive quality free food. Their delusion about the fish is understood by the Talmud that they were bemoaning something else. They felt their life was better in Egypt because they were free–free from the yoke of Torah and Mitzvos. Acknowledgement of G-d and the consequences it entailed seemed so severe to them that they would have rather remained persecuted slaves in a foreign country than to make G-d a fixture in their lives. If so, why did they mention fish?
Imagine a hard working young couple. They need every dollar earned but the husband wastes some of his salary each week on lottery tickets. His wife gets frustrated and speaks with him about it but it is futile. It is ruining their marriage; in desperation, they go to a therapist.
“I can’t take it anymore. For the past year, you haven’t won a penny in the lottery. You keep wasting money!”
“You don’t understand,” he explains. “Every night before the lottery drawing, I go to sleep winning the lottery! Every night I fantasized about what we would do with the money. Those tickets weren’t a waste, they bought me the fantasy of winning every night before the drawing.”
Some people are delusional and think that it is better to see their world as might be (translation: “how I think it should be”) instead of what their world really is. They refuse to revel in the good realities of life and instead would rather fantasize about a better world that never was.
I have observed this numerous times in marriage counseling. In private, one or both of the spouses will talk about previous relationships and how that past love “really understood me…was nicer…a better listener…a better communicator” or something else. When I ask, why did you break up with that person, there’s almost always a long pause and then the real truth comes out that the previous relationship(s) was far from perfect or it was at a time in life when s/he did not have too many responsibilities. Our ability to fantasize about the fictitious past seems to know no limits.
The Jews in the desert, talked about plethora of fish that were available to them in Egypt. The man who bought the lottery tickets believed he was the winner–until he was forced to confront reality. To some of the generation of the wilderness, the imaginary fish was more appealing than real Manna. There was no shortage of food in the wilderness, just a shortage of a reality.
In the world of wishful thinking, it seems that obsessing about imaginary dreams may be more appealing than reveling in the real good that G-d has given us and the mitzva opportunities that connect us to our family and community, and allow us to be roles models for the world.
How does one avoid the trap of delusion? Before answering, we must first identify its source. When a person can not accept life on life’s terms, s/he finds it easier to fantasize about how things should be. The thought usually begins, “I would be happy if…I got the recognition at work I deserve or had a better spouse or had a lot of money or…or…or. What these people do not realize is that there are many people without recognition at work who are happy. Those people realize that great friendships and relationships and other areas enrich their lives and bring them happiness. The people who think a great marriage will make them happy do not realize that many people have wonderful spouses but due to their own shortcomings do not realize that their spouse is a gem. How about the fantasy that wealth will make me happy? Aren’t there many fabulously wealthy celebrities and athletes who have drug addictions that ruin their lives? Our delusions come from our minds and the thought that things in life should be exactly as I think they should be.
The way to avoid delusion is to realize that the world has a loving Creator Who has given you everything you need to find fulfillment and happiness. For some it is harder than for others, but when we realize that we are not G-d, we cannot control people, nature or many of the situations in which we find ourselves, then we are free to live in the reality that my happiness is not dependent on other people or things, it is based on my realization that I am not in control of what happens to me, only G-d can control that. However, I can control how I react and every time I ask G-d for guidance, I ingrain in myself that I cannot solve everything myself and my happiness does not depend on me doing so. Whether it is a job, mother-in-law, sickness, breakup or any of the other vicissitudes that life deals us, when we realize that our job is to live with every given challenge but not necessarily to fix it. By doing so we give ourselves permission to be free because we stop playing G-d. We do not have to change the people and situations around us, we need to learn how to deal with live with them and in general accept life on life’s terms.
Meditation: Start your day thinking of the three blessings you posses: health, family, and friends. Prayer: G-d, sometimes I have a hard time seeing all good in my life. Please help me to see and internalize it.