|At this point in the Exodus story, things seem to be going well. After being enslaved for 210 years, the Jews had miraculously been freed and were now living in the desert and receiving protection, food, and water in a miraculous way. Sounds good, right? Let’s see.
And the people complained and it was evil in G-d’s ears. (11:1)
It’s hard to accurately define “complain” because it’s written in a form not commonly found in the Torah. Rashi 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. 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.
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 it written, “the children of Reuben had much cattle” (Numbers 32:1). If they had sufficient cattle for food, what were they complaining about. Rashi’s answer is that they were seeking a pretext. Rashi’s observation caused me to recall a phenomenon I witnessed more than 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 in Israel during the War. Gap year students were going back and forth whether they should return home to (the safe haven of) America or remain studying the year in Israel. I didn’t conduct 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 the issue 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 through 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 possibility. Many don’t lead the life they desire and deserve because fear, anger, resentment or something else which prevents them from doing what they know they needed to. Although there are many reasons to explain why we don’t confront what we need to, we must always suspect “pretexting” when navigating the road of life. It remains one of the biggest killers of potential and attainment of deep happiness because it prevents us from being honest with ourselves and getting the life we deserve. Good Shabbos (Source: Daas Torah, Bamidbar pp. 82-83)