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Parshat Beha’alotecha: The possibility at the heart of Crisis

Bnei Yisrael are ready to enter the land. The men have been counted for battle. The tribes are encamped around the Tabernacle. The princes have bought their gifts. Moshe invites Yitro to join them on their journey. The Ark is lifted up, the people start moving and then suddenly everything stops. At the climactic moment of transition to a new reality, a new destination - in the liminal space between slavery and freedom, dependence and independence, wilderness, and statehood - the flow is interrupted by a verse that seems decidedly out of place.

In the middle of the narrative two inverted n ü ns frame a familiar verse in our liturgy veyhi binsoa ha’aron­ – when the Ark journeyed. The verse is followed by the complaints of the people, the demand to return to Egypt and a description of the imagined delicacies they enjoyed in slavery.

The question that baffles readers and of course the commentators is the nature of these inverted n ü ns . Some commentaries suggest that it signifies a verse that is out of place.   Rabbi Menachem Leibtag suggests that the inverted verse expresses an 'ideal reality' that never occurred – the people were meant to enter the land miraculously with the Ark defeating the enemies as they journeyed, whereas in reality the second generation will need to fight their own battles. In this reading, the Torah is employing a literary tool to convey a profound dissonance between the ideal and the real. A gap that engenders disappointment, despair, despondency, anger, resentment. But also the potential for sincere growth and transformation. It is in this gap where life is lived and the journey to the promised land really begins. A person who seeks to understand themselves and others will need to exist for a while in the ‘in-between’ space between the ideal and the real and discover how to navigate these contrary sentiments.  

This experience is evident in the narrative that follows the inverted n ü ns .  The text depicts a situation of extreme disappointment on the part of God and Moshe with the people. Their ‘ideal’ plan has been obscured and is replaced by a recalcitrant mob whose distorted perspective of reality colors every aspect of their being. In an unprecedented outburst, Moshe’s anger at the people results in a death request. In addition, we witness despair, anger, and resentment on the part of the people – perhaps the anger is at Moshe and God, or maybe even sub-consciously at themselves – a self- resentment borne of an inadequacy they feel in their own abilities. Every crisis offers an opportunity for growth and transformation. The question is whether this potential is tapped into and channelled in a transformative way. 

Moshe and the people offer divergent models. Moshe, aided by God, employs this crisis towards constructive and transformative ends. The people, however, plagued by a slave mindset and an immature demeanour are ill-equipped to do so.

In the movement from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence, one must accept certain terms of being – one of which is the burden of active responsibility. What we witness in this episode is a reluctance towards independence but at the same time a certain ambivalence about the attachment to the dependent life. The people WANT to become independent but in reality, are not ready for that leap. Much like the period of teenagerhood, they feel that they are mature, independent, and ready for the responsible life, but when faced with the prospect of living the independent life, of moving out of a life of dependency in the midbar, they fail to stand up to the test. Just as they are about to start their journey to the promised land, like children, they cry, moan, complain about trivialities which become all encompassing.

Donald Winnicott the renowned British child psychoanalyst and paediatrician discusses the stages of child development. In Winnicott’s opinion, the stage of the breast forms a critical foundation for childhood security. In perceiving the breast to be part of the child himself, an illusion of omnipotence is achieved. The task of the mother is to gently and securely ‘disillusion’ (wean) the infant so that he/she gradually achieves an independent sense of self and takes agency of their reality. In Hebrew the word for breast -שד  Shad, is very similar to one of the names by which we describe God –  שד-י Shaddai.  This name of God is used primarily to describe a God that is the source of all sustenance and provider of the world.  He is the one להעניק (from the Hebrew word הענקה – to nurse) Who provides for and sustains the world and humanity.   In the midbar stage, God provides for His people. They are sustained and cared for by the omnipotent power of the Divine. But like every good parent, there comes a time to let go and allow the child to discern his/her own path in life. As much as it is enticing for a parent to continually protect their child and keep them safe at home providing for their every need, such an experience will leave the child inadequate and immature. In the words of Jordan Peterson do we want to make our child safe or competent?  The journey to positive freedom requires making space for the people to take active responsibility of their own future. It requires God to take a ‘back seat’ and allow them to slowly transition into a leadership role. God needs to ‘disillusion’(wean) the people so that they do not become too dependent on His omnipotent saving hand.

With this in mind, the disingenuous nature of their complaints can be better understood.  They care less about what they do not have and more about what they do have.

“We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt at no cost, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; but now our throats are dry; there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.“ (Numbers 11:5-6)

The people complain that they have nothing but the manna in front of them.  They are sick of it, they want to rid themselves of it, they crave meat.  So they take the manna and grind it, cook it and make it into cakes and they eat it and it tastes like  שד השמן - the oil of the 'shad'.  In other words, the milk of the breast. The rebellion against the dependent nature of manna reveals an implicit immaturity demonstrated by what they DO desire. The craving for meat underscores another face of their juvenile persona – the need for immediate gratification. The boredom of the manna is replaced with a form of hedonism rather than a turn towards maturation.  The manna ritual represents a lifestyle of dependency. Much like state benefits, or a child in his parents’ home, the manna was sustenance that required little, if no, input on the part of the beneficiary. It required faith yes, but active agency – not so much. Akin to teenagers who rebel against the suffocating presence of an authoritative parent, the people are rebelling against God's immediate presence and the dependent nature of their existence. After their complaints the text describes a strange incident:

“The people went around gathering it. Then they would grind  in mills, or crush it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot and made cakes from it; it tasted like cakes baked with oil.” (Numbers 11:8)

They grind, beat, and bake the manna. Their desire for agency and freedom creates a flurry of activity in the form of processing a non-processed food. The desire for meat is a desire for active participation without the responsibility allied to such a lifestyle. Like many in today’s postmodern world, they want rights without responsibility, freedom without loyalty, self-expression without concern for community. The people are not yet ripe for full independence, even though they think they are. Like a child who tries to run before s/he can walk or a teenager who wants to live life as a continual party, the people of Israel believe they are ready to exit the cradle of Moshe and God’s nursing arms, yet they are neither cognitively, spiritually, or physiologically developed enough to do so.  God needs to disillusion (wean) the people, but it must be done gradually over time.  Because of their obvious infantile outlook, this crisis reaps no long-term growth or pedagogical worth. It is the start of a series of events that eventually leads to the final decree preventing this generation to enter the land. When we lack the fortitude to transform crisis into opportunity for growth, we remain in exile both from ourselves and any future possiblities.

In a parallel narrative that is inextricably interweaved with the existing narrative of the people, we see an exact opposite outcome. Moshe’s response matches that of the people in the visceral despair and despondence it evinces. He even employs the same imagery - that of a nursing father:

”Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who gave birth to them all, that You should say to me ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nursemaid carries a baby,’ to the land that You swore to their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12)

As a leader of his people, he understands the dichotomous nature of their complaints. He sees their desire to be independent and their inability to live up to the demands of what that independence entails.  His despair stems from his position as the nursing father who understands his people better than they understand themselves. Moshe’s feeling of failure lead to a general disillusionment both with his worth as a leader and his belief in the people. God remedies this by bringing him seventy elders on whom Moshe’s spirit will rest. Moshe will get to see the impact his spirit can have on others and he will use this episode of crisis as a pivot towards a renewed and transitioned model of leadership. The gap between the ideal and the real will be appropriated towards navigating a new path of guidance and management. Moshe reframes the reality and returns to the people invigorated and ready to face new challenges.

In the end the people never enter the land in the way originally planned in the ויהי בנסוע   version. Rather than a miraculous victory, the second generation must battle on the ground. The ideal version has been lost, and in its stead comes a new and perhaps more ‘real’ version where we are active partners in creating a functioning state and society. Working with God rather than God working for us, demands a certain maturity and agency. It demands we grow up and make difficult choices but ultimately the rewards of freedom and covenantal living are all the richer.

One crisis, two similar responses, two divergent outcomes. Every crisis we face in our lives is allied to a certain disillusionment. Winnicott describes the origins of this disillusionment in his theory of the infant and the breast. But throughout our lives, there are always moments of inverted n ü ns , there is always the watershed verse, the reality that ‘could have been.’ And in every situation, we have a choice. Do we choose the ‘meat’ or the ‘spirit’? Do we rally to return to a distorted and idealised version of our past that has been lost, or do we look to the future and choose to journey to the ‘promised land,’ even with the fears, responsibilities and burden that it entails, even if it is not the version we envisioned? Do we choose despair or hope? Can we strive for the ideal whilst living in the real?  Can we be free and responsible?  These are the questions that sit at the heart of the book of Bamidbar and nowhere more than as we have seen in this week’s Parsha and they are questions that are of urgency today as the answers will determine the kind of world we live in tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom


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