Friday, May 28, 2010

Beha'alotkha (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2006_05_20, as well as June 2008 and June 2009.

“And they desired a desire”

This week’s parashah is the first in a series of three which describe various murmurings and rebellions of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert—beginning with the desire, in response to their boredom with manna, to eat meat; through their fears, in wake of the report of the spies, that they would be unable to conquer the Land; and ending in the open rebellion against Moses’ authority led by Korah. As I’ve suggested in previous years, these incidents may be read as paradigms for more general human weaknesses and failings.

The story begins with a somewhat unusual phrase: “And the mixed multitude among them desired a desire” or, if you will, “appetited an appetite” (hitavu ta’avah). The grammatical construction is unusual (paralleled only in Ps 106:14 and Prov 21:26): the verb referring to the act of desiring is the same as that from which the noun, ta’avah, meaning “desire,” “appetite,” “craving” or even “lust,” is constructed. Yalkut Yehudah quotes here an interesting comment, without citing the precise source. He simply says that it is taken “from the books” (meha-sefarim), which is probably an elegant way of saying that he read it once, but does not remember where. In any event, the comment reads as follows:

“They desired a desire” (Num 11:4). They desired to have the appetite to eat meat, as by the eating of the manna they had ceased to have any appetite.

This brief saying, no doubt prompted by the peculiar linguistic usage mentioned above, says something about the nature of appetite, and about the nature of eating mat. Human appetite may exist on two, or even three, levels: there is direct, natural appetite, bodily needs felt as an immediate need of the body—thirst, hunger, and the need for sexual release. Close to this is desire as a direct response to sensory stimuli: e.g., the sight or smell attractive foods; the encounter with an attractive (or, even better, beloved) woman or man, as the case may be. But then there is that appetite which originates in the imagination: one remembers something which has given one pleasure in the past and ruminates on it, thereby arousing the desire to repeat that pleasure; or one fantasizes about a pleasure which one has never experienced, but has heard about from others or otherwise knows about. For example, an adolescent virgin will fantasize about that mysterious thing called sex, a subject of curiosity for just about everyone in that stage of life; or an observant Jew might wonder what pork or shellfish tastes like, and fantasize about it until feeling the desire to taste the forbidden flesh.

This latter type of desire is one unique to humankind: the beast, even the highly developed primate, only knows immediate, tangibly felt appetites, or a direct response to things they hear or see or smell (albeit this may also include conditioned responses, like Pavlov’s dogs responding to a bell, or my cat expecting a treat of cottage cheese whenever I open the refrigerator in the morning). While the desire of the imagination may be one of the sources of the almost infinite variety of human life and culture, it is also a major source of frustration and malcontent in human life—inevitably, pleasures imagined outstrip our capacity to fulfill them (“No person dies with half of his appetite in hand”).

Now, there is one further step: a person may not only imagine a given pleasure, he may consciously bring himself to desire something, he may lead his mind along the path of desiring, of imagining a given pleasure, and allow himself to be consumed by this fantasy. It is this capacity that leads to the existence of such things as pornography—at this point in history a multi-billion dollar industry, quite probably the most numerous type of website on the internet—whose entire purpose is to arouse, to stimulate sexual desire; the consumer of pornography deliberately seeks words or images that will arouse his/her sexual excitement, but that do not in themselves offer fulfillment or satisfaction. Indeed, precisely as our text says, he “desires a desire.”

This capacity to imagine pleasures in isolation from immediate need or desire also lies at the root of addiction. Many of the substances to which people become addicted—tobacco, the vast variety of drugs (which may be extremely concentrated forms of elements that exist in nature, such as the poppy seeds from which heroin is derived), alcohol (albeit this is a more ambiguous example, as it also serves as a convivial drink, and may also taste good)—serve no natural, innate need, but are artificial pleasures, which serve the sole purpose of fulfilling an appetite or craving which certain people have learned to desire, providing a sense of excitement, of vitality, a rush of adrenalin, the thrill of anticipation, or an illusion of well-being and happiness—disconnected from any real need (all this, of course, before the physical dependence and addiction set in).

Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings (pp. 32-34), has an essay entitled “The Temptation of Temptation,” in which he deals with this phenomenon. Here he discusses the psychology of appetite, or “temptation,” in a manner that goes far beyond Hazal’s understanding of it, seeing the phenomenon as emblematic of central themes in Western culture and the psychology of Western man. He has significant things to say about this subject, which are well worth reading:

The temptation of temptation may well describe the condition of Western man. In the first place it describes his moral attitudes. He is for an open life, eager to try everything, to experience everything, “in a hurry to live. Impatient to feel.” In this respect, we Jews all try to be Westerners… Ulysses’ life, despite its misfortunes, seems to us marvelous, and that of Don Juan enviable, despite its tragic end. One must be rich and a spendthrift and multiple before being essential and one… Oh, above all, we cannot close ourselves off to any possibility. We cannot let life pass us by!… There would be no glory in triumphing in innocence, a concept defined purely negatively as a lack, associated with naivete and childhood, marking it as a provisional state.…

Christianity too is tempted by temptation, and in this it is profoundly Western. It proclaims a dramatic life and a struggle with the tempter, but also an affinity with this intimate enemy. … Christianity tempts us by the temptation, even if overcome, which fill the days and nights even of its saints. We are often repelled by the “flat calm” which reigns in the Judaism regulated by the Law and ritual.…

The temptation of temptation is not the attractive pull exerted by this or that pleasure,…. but the ambiguity of a situation in which pleasure is still possible but in respect to which the Ego keeps its liberty, has not yet given up its security, has kept its distance…. [It} is thus the temptation of knowledge.

Significantly, these remarks appear in a discussion of the aggadah concerning the Sinai Revelation (a subject which I discussed in my own recent essay at HY XI: Shabbat Kallah–Shavuot), in relation to the dichotomy of autonomy and heteronomy. From his perspective, teshuvah and acceptance of Torah are, quite simply, the path to moral and spiritual health.

The second subject upon which this comment about appetite touches has to do with the nature of eating meat. Our text seems to imply that the desire for meat is an appetite that in some sense needs to be cultivated, stimulated; during the period when the Israelites ate manna, they so-to-speak lost their appetite for and even interest in eating meat. Hence, they needed to reawaken a long-forgotten appetite—a process which our author implies is somehow artificial and unnatural. Are we to understand that he advocated a vegetarian ethos of sort?—that man is by nature happy to eat grains, bread and vegetables? Clearly, human beings are not carnivores in the straightforward, simple way that the big felines, predatory birds, and other beasts of prey are. Rather, eating meat is in some sense an acquired appetite, and as such problematic.

Interestingly, the Torah uses the word ta’avah and related verbal forms specifically about the eating of meat—far more so than about sex (the one exception I found is Ps 45:12, the royal wedding psalm, ויתאו המלך יפיך; albeit in Rabbinic Hebrew and even more so in medieval Musar literature תאוה is used as a euphemism for sexual desire). Thus in Deut 12:20 (cf. v. 22): “When the Lord expands your boundaries … and you say, ‘I shall eat meat,’ because your soul desires to eat meat (כי תאוה נפשך לאכול בשר), with all the appetite of your soul (בכל אות נפשך), you may eat meat…”

It is also interesting that, in the religions of the Far East, sexual activity and eating meat are associated as the two activities that a spiritual seeker, one becoming a or mendicant monk (usually, unlike Christianity monasticism, in later life, after having lived a family life and raising children as a householder) must eschew—not because of any innate sinfulness associated with them, but because, as gross corporeal pleasures they “weigh down” a person, literally and figuratively.

Pirkei Avot: "These Things Take a Person Out of the World"

I had hoped to return this week to our secondary topic of Pirkei Avot, which I neglected the past few weeks due to major thematic essays. I noticed, in connection with the discussion of “appetite” or “desire,” three passages in Avot which mention things that “remove a person from the world”—including ta’avah. Due to the lateness of the hour and the approaching onset of Shabbat I cannot comment on them ere, nor compare them with one another, nor even explain the term “remove them from the world.” Instead, I shall suffice for now with presenting the texts and their translation for readers’ study and reflection over Shabbat, and hopefully return to them soon (the numbers in brackets indicate alternative traditions of numbering the mishnayot):

2.14 [11]. Rabbi Joshua said: the evil eye, and the Evil Urge, and hatred of people, take a person out of the world.

3.13. Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus said: Sleep in the morning, and wine at noontime, and discourse of children, and sitting in the synagogues [or: assemblies] of the ignorant—remove a person from the world.

4.27 [21]. Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar said: Jealousy [and hatred] and desire and [the pursuit of] honor remove a person from the world.


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