Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beha'alotkha (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 10 2006, June 2008, June 2009, and May 2010.

“Give Us Meat!”

As I observe almost every year around this time, in this section of Sefer Bamidbar the children of Israel, and human beings generally, are shown in their worst light. After the “high” of the Revelation at Sinai (whose commemorative holiday, Shavuot, always falls shortly before the reading of these sections), the people begin to murmur, complain, and even openly rebel against Moses and his leadership. These chapters are among the most significant ones in the Torah for the study of relations between the individual and the community: on the one hand, for the behavior of masses of men, providing case studies of how each individual often loses his own sense of judgment and even of ethics when caught up in a kind of mass hysteria; on the other hand, for the light shed on the behavior of individual leaders charged with leading the people—Moshe Rabbenu and his partners: Aaron, Joshua, the elders, et al.

The causes for the murmurings and complaints gradually grow over these three parshiyot, from trivial to weighty. Here, in Numbers 11, the complaint is one of simple boredom with the food. To paraphrase: We’re sick and tired of eating nothing but manna, day after day. They did not confront real hunger, or any other form of real need; their basic needs were all miraculously provided: nourishment, through the manna that fell every day (except Shabbat, for which special provision was made through the descent of a double portion on Friday); their clothing and shoes never wore out but were miraculously preserved in good condition; God protected them from serpents, scorpions, wild animals, marauders, and other dangers of desert life. The manna itself, according to one midrash, assumed a variety of flavors (and perhaps textures): it was even more versatile than tofu or textured soybean protein! And yet, perhaps because the people had nothing to do—they did no labor, they stayed mostly in one place, traveling only on occasion (42 encampments over a 40–year interval, the majority of these during the first and last year)—they had ample time to mull over the smallest details of their existence which weren’t to their liking. And what is more basic than food? In a verse pregnant with irony, they complain: we remember all the spicy and tasty foods we ate in Egypt “free” (Num 11:5)—forgetting the hardships and indignities and suffering and exhaustion of their servitude.

But there was more to it than that. This chapter vividly describes their primitive, almost primordial desire for meat, specifically. “The riffraff among them desired a desire” (התאוו תאוה; v. 4). There is a sheer physicality involved in the act of eating flesh which does not exist in the same way with other kinds of food (Ironically, quail is one of the leanest, smallest birds, perhaps one-quarter the size of the average chicken). Elsewhere, too, the Bible clearly expresses this perception of flesh as an object of ta’avah. In Deut 12:20-28, in describing the special arrangements to be made for slaughtering meat in non-cultic setting once the people are settled throughout the Land and it is too far to travel to the altar in Temple whenever they want to eat meat, the wording used is “for your soul desires/lusts to eat meat (כי תאוה נפשך לאכול בשר).” While there are many kinds of food that may be “mouth-watering” and which people greatly desire to eat—perhaps fresh-baked bread, or chocolate, or juicy summer fruits, or corn on the cob dripping with butter—there is a kind of lust for meat that is somehow different from this, more basic, even, if I may put it thus, closer to the savage and instinctive within mankind—arguably, second in intensity only to sexual desire. (In my yeshiva days, I remember some boys who would periodically travel to the nearest city just to eat “steak.”) As the other side of the coin, there is a perception, a stereotype of non-meat eaters as somehow more ethereal, more spiritual, almost ascetic, than others, having rejected what seems to many a fundamental need.

I do not want to engage too much in a diatribe on behalf of vegetarianism, particularly as I am myself a carnivore, but it is interesting, also, that the blessings recited over food in Jewish imply a very definite structure: animal products—meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.—are simply Shehakol: “that everything was created at His word.” By contrast, there is great differentiation among foods derived from vegetation, suggesting that the ideal diet is centered around grain, fruits, and vegetables—very different from the (until recently) traditional American flesh-centered diet. If they wanted to, Hazal could have formulated a special blessing for eating flesh, perhaps based upon Gen 9:2-3, “who has given us all living things to eat.” That they did not do so says something.

Might there also be a gender differentiation here: in ancient times, men were the hunters and trappers, while women were the gardeners, tillers of the earth and keepers pf the fire, the first cooks and bakers. Note the male ritual around roasting meat at a barbeque. I found myself thinking about all this recently while seeing an ad on TV around Yom ha-Atzmaut (the meat-eater’s holiday par excellence!): the meat packer’s association was pushing the idea of buying meat using the most primitive Hebrew imaginable: “Adom adom basar basar tari tari (roughly translated as: “Very red, very meaty, very fresh”), followed by the statement, “To be Israeli means to love eating meat!” (!)

A niece of mine, an anthropologist whose expertise is Chinese culture, once explained to me the meaning of sexual abstinence in Buddhist and Hindu monasticism. Unlike Christianity, in which this is related to a sense of innate sin connected with sexuality, and in which a certain moral superiority is attached to virginity and chastity, in Far Eastern cultures the avoidance of carnality is a prerequisite for the more refined consciousness required for spirituality and meditation. And, most important: sexual chastity and avoidance of eating meat go hand-in-hand, as expressions of intense engagement in carnality (as suggested by the root meaning of the word: carnos=flesh)

A few words about leadership in this parashah. At one point, when besieged by the people’s complaints, Moses addresses God with words whose purport is: “What do you want from me! Am I this people’s nursemaid!“ (Num 11:11-12). In this passage, I see Moses as a rarefied spiritual or intellectual type who prefers to be elsewhere, prefers contemplating Gods sublime infinity, rather than deal with the petty, almost infantile demands of the mob.

This dovetails with what we discussed in our study for Shavuot: the gap between Moses, the teacher and leader, who is the unique individual on an unparalleled level of spirituality, who alone apprehended in full the true nature of the One God, and the vague, cloudy experience of the masses of the people. The distinction made by Rambam is germane: between “intellectives” (‘aql)—i.e., philosophical truths, such as those concerning the nature of God—and conventional and moral truths (numussiyya), needed for the common weal and the smooth functioning of human society. In Maimonides’ scheme of things, the former are clearly far superior and more sublime, while the latter at times seem little more than a “necessary evil.”

Needless to say, there are other viewpoints within Judaism, in which the pursuit of the just and righteous society, as an expression or imitation of God’s compassion and lovingkindness (“the second tablets”) is far more important, and takes precedence over individual experience, however sublime and elevated.


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