Beha'aloscha 5774:    Past Imperfect

By Rabbi Joshua (ideally known as The Hoffer) Hoffman


In Parshas Beha’aloscha, the people repeatedly complain to Moshe about their condition in the wilderness, asking for meat and complaining about the manna they were receiving. Finally, Moshe asks God, “Why have You done evil to your servant… that you place the burden of the entire people upon me (Bamidbar 11:11).”  What was it about the immediate complaint that so bothered Moshe that he wanted to relinquish his leadership?  Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in a dramatic shiur, suggested that the people, in their emphasis on the type of food they ate, revealed themselves to be voluptuaries, not interested in deeper matters and Moshe felt that he could not deal with such people and lead them to a higher level of living. Perhaps, however, by further examining their complaints we can find a more specific problem that evoked Moshe’s reaction. 


 After asking for meat, the people tell Moshe, “We still remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt at no cost; the cucumbers and the melons, the leeks and the onions and the garlic. And now our soul is dried out, without anything, we have nothing except the manna before our eyes.” (Bamidbar 11:5-6)  Rabbi Shubert Spero once noted that the people used only one word to describe the fish they had in Egypt, but five words to describe the vegetables. He used this point to explain a midrash which says that because the Egyptians made the Jews plant crops in Egypt, God brought plagues such as locust and hail to destroy them. Rabbi Spero explained that the slaves developed a pride in the work of their hands, as reflected in their nostalgic description of the crop. This pride led them to grow an attachment to Egypt, and want to remain there, and later, to return.  In order to remove any reason for them to want to stay, God brought plagues to destroy those crops.  This comment works on a very subtle level of interpretation and psychological insight. I believe that there is another subtle point here that can help us understand Moshe’s reaction.


There is a human tendency to look back on the past in an idealistic way, and try to recreate it, rather than dealing with one’s current challenges and situations.  In literature, we find this depicted well in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby.  The point of that novel is that we cannot really recreate the past, and, often the past we seem to recall never really existed at all. The rabbis tell us that the manna tasted like whatever food the consumer imagined. Why didn’t God simply make it taste like the most delicious food possible?  A friend once suggested that God wanted the people to use their imagination, to dream, to think of progress, rather than remain passive, as they did when they were slaves.  Moshe’s task was to lead them in their process of growth.  Their idealization of their past experience in Egypt was directly opposed to that goal, and that development led Moshe to despair of his leadership role.  


R. Hoffman update - R. Hoffman is boruch Hashem, recovering from a procedure the other day. He thanks you for your prayers and asks that you continue to keep him in mind for a רפואה שלמה במהרה, בתוך שאר חולי ישראל.