Parashat B'ha'alotkha

Craving Perspective

The closer we are to God, the more we are able to put our cravings into perspective.

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In fact, we are urged to pay special attentions to our "cravings" by no less a figure than R. Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Chassidism (d. 1760)--usually known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (sometimes even Besht for short). His grandson, R. Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov, author of Degel Machane Ephraim, quotes the Ba'al Shem Tov on this verse:

. . . Kivrot-HaTa'avah, this is the aspect of wisdom, for there the people buried their cravings. The explanation is that anyone who attains the quality of wisdom can thus make as nothing all of their cravings, from the greatness of his/ her cleaving to the Holy One of Blessed Name. (from Sefer Ba'al Shem Tov, translation mine.)

In order to make a midrash, the Ba'al Shem Tov reads "Graves of Cravings" literally--the "cravings" themselves were buried. For the Besht, attaining wisdom means knowing what to "crave" and what to not crave.

A central aspect of his overall teaching is that one should yearn to feel close to or "cleave" to God, and when one does, one's material and physical desires assume a different perspective. I don't think this is the same as "overcoming" or "conquering" a desire, which implies great or painful struggle, but simply being so filled with a religious spirit that material desires don't become the most important thing in life.

Nor do I think this implies an absolute rejection of creature comforts or physical pleasure, but rather just keeping things in perspective, nurturing a consciousness of what is long-lasting and what is momentary. In another place, the Ba'al Shem Tov writes:

I have placed God before me always (Psalm 16:8). . . "shiviti, (I have placed)" this is the language of "equalness." [A pun which doesn't work in English--sorry.] Anything that happens to a person, should be equally OK with him. Whether people praise him or humiliate him, and thus with other things. In eating too, whether she eats tasty things or ordinary things, everything should be equal to her, to deprive the Evil Urge of anything [to use against a person.]
(Tziva'at Ha Rivash, #2, translation mine.)

Again, notice that the relationship with God is central to the teaching; a person with a vibrant spiritual consciousness is less likely to desire things out of jealousy, or insecurity, or ingratitude, or arrogance. Returning to our story, recall that the problem with the complaining Israelites was not so much that they wanted meat, per se, but that they could not appreciate the food that they had, or apprehend its source in Divine grace.

To "bury their cravings" would have meant keeping things in proper perspective, seeing the good, rather than reacting out of negativity or insecurity. Had they been able to do that, perhaps they could have even turned their complaints into joy, choosing to see each day's sustenance as a gift from the Holy One. This is the wisdom which the Ba'al Shem Tov urges us to attain.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.