Cultivated Cravings

Not letting desires frustrate us.

Commentary on Parashat Beha'alotcha, Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

This week’s Torah portion begins on a positive, confident note. Moses is commanded to transmit the Divine instructions for lighting the oil-lamp menorah to Aaron, and to dedicate the tribe of Levi to the service of the mishkan (Tabernacle). The instructions are clear, simple, and direct, and the imagery is positive — light, bathing, cleanliness,consecration.

Yet, by the end of the portion, the Jewish nation has degenerated to the point that they are punished with mass destruction and burial at Kivrot haTaavah, the Graves of Appetite. What ideal is symbolized by lighting of the menorah at the beginning of the portion, and how did we fail so disastrously to achieve it?

The menorah is mentioned repeatedly in the Torah, usually in conjunction with the shulhan, the table and shelves that held the lehem panim, or “showbread.” What is the connection between these two items? The only relationship between the shulhan and the menorah that the Torah mentions is geometric: Twice in the Torah we are directed that the menorah is to be placed on the southern side of the mishkan, and the shulhan on its northern side (Exodus 26:35; 40:22-25).

Conflicting Winds

At a time when our ancestors lived in intimate contact with nature, north and south carried many important connotations. The north wind brings cool, moist air and rainclouds; the south wind (shar’av or hamsin) is hot, dry, and dusty. Like all farmers, ancient Jews hoped that each would arrive at the time when it would bebeneficial. The Talmud (Bava Batra 147a) recognizes this fact:

The north wind is helpful to wheat when it has completed one third of its ripening, and damaging to olive trees in bloom. The south wind is damaging to wheat that is one-third ripe, and a benefit to olive trees when they are in bloom. Hence, the shulhan was placed in the north, and the menorah in the south.

When do these winds occur? The late spring period between Passover and Shavuot is known in Hebrew as sefirah (literally ‘counting’). This name refers to the fact that the Torah gives no date for Shavuot. Rather, we are instructed to count 49 days, beginning with the second day of Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16). The 50th day is then the date of Shavuot; hence its English name ‘Pentecost.’

In Israel, the weather of the first weeks of sefirah is still dominated by the northern air masses that arrive during the winter. This cool, moist northern air bring the rains of winter and early spring. An ample supply of water is essential to the growth of any plant part, including seeds and fruits. Thus, the north wind helps the young growing wheat grains to expand. This growth enables the grains to fill with starch and protein later, as they mature.

However, olive trees and other fruit trees flower during this period. Warm, dry conditions favor the pollination of olive flowers. Rain during the first weeks after Passover, while beneficial to wheat, would wash away the olive pollen and discourage pollinating bees from visiting flowers.

Conversely, rain during the final weeks of sefirah, close to Shavuot, promotes the growth of olive fruit, but it also encourages the growth of fungi that can damage the wheat crop. Wet conditions also delay the wheat harvest, leading to rotting of grain or attacks by grain-eating insects and birds.

Placement of the menorah and the shulhan together in the mishkan symbolically reminds us that both natural forces–the rainy north wind and the drying south wind–are under the control of the same God, who rewards us with a healthy balance between these forces.

Desire and Consumerism

If we understand this and acknowledge our dependence on God, we can expect to be rewarded with the produce affected by natural forces under the control of Heaven. We are promised as much in the Torah (Leviticus 26:3-13).

But if we imagine that we can separate natural forces from each other or from their Divine source, whether through polytheism, idolatry, or radical materialism that denies God, then we are doomed to failure.

This was the offense of those who died at Kivrot haTaavah. To crave meat was not a sin. To indulge gluttonously without acknowledging the Creator or the limits of Creation was an expression of contempt for all that God had done for them. Such behavior leads to disaster.

Indeed, Rashi points out that the demand for meat and other food was a mere pretext to complain (Numbers 11:4). To complain about what? Rashi’s comment seems to reflect the Talmud’s suggestion (Yoma 75a) that the complaint was not about substance, but an expression of frustration at living under the mitzvot.

The reflexive language — hit’avu ta’ava — “they cultivated a craving” — evokes a group that dwells on its own frustrated desires. A generalized dissatisfaction, expressed in endless demands for more material things that do not bring happiness, can never be satisfied.

Rashi calls this a pretext for complaint. Today, we would call it insatiable consumerism. We are told that the Israelites collected enormous quantities of quail that they would never be able to consume, decimating the birds.

A desire that can never be satisfied consumes resources to the point of destructiveness. An insatiable consumer can become a public danger who must be restrained until he or she can be reeducated to an attitude of gratitude and humility.

Rashi explains further (Numbers 11:20) that the deaths at Kivrot haTaavah continued until the quail had been provided for a month, demonstrating that this miraculous provision was indeed possible, though it did not satisfy the complainers.

Who is Prosperous?

What is the alternative to seeking solace in destructive unbridled consumption? Commenting on the instructions for the lighting of the menorah at the beginning of our Torah portion, Rashi explains that its lamps did not face out to maximize the illumination (Numbers 8:2). Rather, they were turned inward toward the menorah’s center, as if to indicate that we should cultivate an inward light, not an attitude of entitlement or superiority.

This is the key to avoiding Kivrot haTaavah. Crass, self-seeking consumerism and overconsumption lead us and all around us to a bad end. The menorah and the shulhan remind us that Heaven provides all things, good and ill. Understanding that everything in our world proceeds from God, both when it serves our desires and when it does not, leads us to appreciate and express gratitude for what we have.

Humble and prudent stewardship of our limited resources will ensure a future for ourselves and our descendants. As the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot reminds us,”Who is prosperous? One who is content with his portion (Avot 4:1).”

Suggested Action Items:

1. Decide what you really care about, and avoid spending resources on things you don’t really want or need. For example, you may be tempted to buy a new cell phone or the latest computer when the one you have works just fine. See if you can keep yours for another six months or a year to save money and reduce the resources used on a new one.

2. Are you planning a move? In addition to proximity to synagogues, school, work, and shopping, think about access to efficient public transportation.

3. Instead of seeking happiness through purchasing, make a list of pleasures you can take in daily life. Authentic pleasures are satisfying and enduring. Give these to yourself as presents.

4. Save money and produce less trash by planning your buying in advance and avoiding single-serving packages. For example: Bring your lunch to work. Include a treat as a reward for yourself. Remember to pack sandwiches and snacks for long car trips to avoid buying non-nutritious, over-priced snacks at highway convenience stores.

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