Care For Some Quail With Your Potatoe?: Beha’alotkha 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pregame Chatter: Why is it often difficult to express our frustrations in a direct way? Why do we often complain about other things or people and avoid speaking about what is really bothering us?

As an example, the Israelites in our Torah portion complain about being deprived of meat while in the wilderness approaching the Promised Land. But is this really the source of their frustration?

The Pitch: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” (Numbers 11:4-6)

Swing #1: “The subject of [the Israelites’] grumblings is not revealed at this juncture, since, at the beginning, they kept it inside. Later, they clothed their discontent in the form of a hankering for meat; but though, at the beginning, their discontent smoldered within them, the Lord who knows the thoughts of man was well aware of what was going on inside their hearts … The phrase ‘The Lord heard’ implies that He understood the situation, though nothing had actually been explicitly said.” – Isaac Arama

Swing #2: “Just before [the Israelites demanded meat] it is written, ‘and they craved a craving.’ Indeed, Israel did not crave meat, for [after Sinai] they were already free from the evil impulse. Rather, they craved a craving, they yearned to have a [physical, bodily] craving. It seemed to them that it would be preferable to come under the power of craving meat and [be able to demonstrate] that they could withstand the temptation, and that they could eat the meat in holiness and purity, and thereby bring pleasure to God. But their way was not proper in God’s eyes, for no person needs to make a test for himself, even if by means of this, he merits to attain a very high rung. For this way [of self-contrived testing necessarily] involves conniving [deception] and self-importance [self-injury, arrogance]. A person who indeed loves God is more satisfied when he is simply [able to] serve without [any] mental games of craving and temptation.” – S’fat Emet

Swing #3: “The phenomenon of the quail … like manna, has a curious natural correlative in the Sinai that suggests the story may have roots in reality. Huge flocks of quail, Coturnix coturnix, migrate every autumn from Europe to Central Africa and return in the spring. The birds are often so exhausted by this flight that they drop, near-dead, in the hundreds along the northern coastline of Egypt and Sinai. … Given this phenomenon, some scientists have suggested that the death of the Israelites after eating the quail can be attributed to a rare ornithological disease the birds carried after ingesting a poisonous fungus in the Nile Valley.” – Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentaries tell us that the Israelites’ frustration about a lack of meat is a “cover” for the concerns they are reluctant to address: their insecurities about moving from slavery in Egypt to obedience of God’s commandments. That God is able to answer their concerns about meat is a lesson to the Israelites to only ask for what you really need (or, if you take into account Feiler’s quote, that sometimes you receive what you ask for only via coincidence). If you were an Israelite in this circumstance, how could you have expressed your misgivings in a direct and respectful way? Or is that too much to ask of a people who have gone through major life changes since leaving Egypt?

On Deck at Emanu-El: At next Saturday’s services, we will be proud to present Shema Yisrael: Torah With All Our Senses. This is an award-winning program introduced at the most recent USCJ Conference. Daphne Hubara and I look forward to showing you how easy it can be to read Torah together. Please be a part of a brand-new way to experience the Torah and Haftarah readings, and join us Saturday, July 2nd, at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Do you believe in reverse jinxes? If you do … let me say that I anticipate that the Cubs, who have lost four straight, will not win another game all year.

Shabbat Shalom!