Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Behaaloscha (Numbers 8-12) Confronting the Killer of Potential

At this point in the Exodus story, things seem to be going well for the Jews. After being enslaved for 210 years, they had miraculously been freed and were now living in the desert. Their protection, food, and water were given to them in a miraculous way. One would think that this ideal existence is one they would cherish-but they did not.
And the people complained and it was evil in G-d’s ears. (11:1)
It’s hard to accurately translate this verse because “complain” (i.e. this form of it) is not commonly found in the Torah. Rashi, based on other texts, explains that it denotes a pretext to complain (and ultimately) turn away from G-d. What were they complaining about? They were fed daily with manna but demanded meat. If things were really bad, one could understand a complaint but it seems odd that now that they had freedom and sustenance they were complaining. It’s similar to a child complaining that his parents are tyrants because they make him do a few chores around the house before going out to play. The child is the recipient of food, shelter, transportation, and numerous other gifts but because he doesn’t feel like doing chores, he makes the grand accusation that his parents are tyrants. Let’s look at what the Jews of that generation said.
But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, “Who will feed us meat? (11:4)
Rashi asks, “Were they lacking meat? The verse states explicitly ‘Also a great mixed multitude went up with them, and flocks and cattle’ (Exodus 12:38)? You might argue that they had already eaten them, but when they were about to enter the Land, is written that, “the children of Reuben had much cattle” (Num. 32:1)? The answer is that they were seeking a pretext.” Rashi’s comment caused me to recall a phenomenon I witnessed about 25 years ago.
We (the Oppenheim’s) lived in Israel during the Gulf War and there was much discussion about how dangerous it was to remain during the War. One group that went back and forth on this were students; should they return home to (the safe haven of) America or remain studying for the year in Israel? I didn’t make a formal study but many of those with whom I spoke (who chose to return home), weren’t having a particularly good year; their gap year in Israel was not working out as expected. Some were homesick, others had different expectations for how the year would evolve or were having a challenge adjusting to the different culture; some were simply out of their comfort zone. Although none of them wanted a war, it (war) served as a convenient pretext to save face and return home before the year was over.
When we are motivated to do something, we seem to have unlimited energy and drive to do it but when we have to confront an uncomfortable situation, we might seek pretexts in order to avoid it. Our ability to believe the lies we tell ourselves seems unlimited, as does our fear of having an adult conversation with ourselves about why we sometimes choose the path of least resistance-even though it will not be beneficial for us in the long run. If a student decides to drop out of college to pursue “my passion” it behooves him to ask, “am I really pursuing something or am I avoiding the hard work and commitment it takes to get through college?” If one leaves a marriage because “I’m not being treated properly,” have you spoken with a trusted friend or professional who shares your assessment? There might be one or more significant issues, but are you sure that is truly issue(s) or are you merely avoiding the work it will take on your part to patch things up?
The Jewish people had everything they needed while journeying though the desert but along with the miracles of protection and sustenance came the realization that the G-d concept was real and there was a certain moral imperative that it entailed. They complained to Moses because they didn’t want to deal with this new Torah reality, an unpleasant reality we still deal with today. We don’t like people at work telling us that taking home office supplies is called stealing or that talking maliciously behind someone’s back is wrong; we don’t like being told that we have to be more responsible with our children or parents and unfaithful spouses certainly don’t want to hear that adultery is wrong.
While driving on any given highway in America, one might encounter the sign, “Texting kills.” While that might be true for drivers, there is another form of texting that should frighten us because it too kills. “Pretexting” (i.e. using a pretext to avoid doing something you know you need to do) is one of life’s biggest killers of potential; many have not lead the life they wanted and deserved because fear, anger, resentment or some other cause prevented them from doing what they knew they needed to do. Although many reasons might be offered for not confronting what truly needs to be confronted, “pretexting” is something with which we must always suspect ourselves while navigating the road of life. It has been and remains one of the biggest killers of potential and attainment of deep happiness because it prevents the “pretexter” from being honest with himself or herself and getting the life (s)he deserves.
Good Shabbos
(Source: Daas Torah,Bamidbar pp. 82-83)