When we doubt the meaning of our lives, mere food cannot satisfy us. Yet many people divert anxiety about their futures into craving for food—both today and in the Torah.
When the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks with them. They are never forbidden to use their livestock for milk or meat, so they are in no danger of starving. Yet a month and a half after they leave Egypt, they complain about food.
The entire assembly of the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness. The Children of Israel said to them: “If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat beside a pot of meat, when we ate bread until [we were] sated; for you brought us out to this wilderness to put to death this whole congregation by famine!” (Exodus/Shemot 16:2-3, in the Torah portion Beshallach)
How could dying in Egypt with a full stomach be better than journeying with God’s protection? These are the people who chose to follow Moses and his god out of Egypt, who sang and danced after God rescued them from the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea. How could they feel so discouraged in the second month of their trek across the wilderness?
God diagnoses the problem, and solves it—temporarily—with manna.
Then God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down food from the heavens… (Exodus 16:4)
Manna satisfies the people for a while—not because they need additional food, I think, but because it reminds them daily that God loves them like a parent. They are already following the divine pillar of cloud and fire across the wilderness. Now they know that they are not wandering aimlessly; serving God gives them a purpose in life.
The Israelites forget their purpose and fail to serve God whenever they are idle or afraid during their sojourn at Mount Sinai. But they are in good spirits when they march away from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you raise up”) in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. They head toward their promised land supplied not only with the manna God provides, and the livestock they brought up from Egypt, but also with a splendid portable sanctuary and its numinous objects, as well as a set of God-given rules and principles to live by.
Alas, after only three days of marching they lapse into complaining again. The Torah does not tell us the content of their complaint at Taverah. It merely says God hears and reacts with anger, consuming the edge of the camp with fire. Then the people switch from complaining to sobbing.
And the riff-raff that was in its midst felt strong cravings, and they sobbed, and the Children of Israel also [sobbed], and they said: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, and the cucumbers and watermelons and leeks and onions and garlic. And now our nefesh is dried up; there is nothing except the manna for our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat, animating soul, life
Why, when they are on the verge of getting their own land, do the people yearn for the food in Egypt again? Psalm 78 answers:
They tested God in their hearts by asking for food for their nefesh. (Psalm 78:18)
To me, this shows that the people are not complaining about dry throats, but about dry lives. They have not lost their appetite for food, but they have lost their appetite for being God’s people.
For the survivors of the Golden calf incident, life at Mount Sinai was both pleasant and meaningful. They had the pleasure of serving God by making donations, but their donations were the treasures they took from their Egyptian neighbors, rather than anything personal. They also had the pleasure of serving God by skilled creative work, as they made the sanctuary and its holy objects.
Now, as they march north, the people are approaching the border of Canaan. They know their next service to God will be taking over a land inhabited by other people. As we learn in next week’s Torah portion, Shelach, very few Israelites believe that God will single-handedly drive out the inhabitants and leave them empty cities and farms. Instead they are anticipating war, which means many hardships and deaths.
Now the thought of serving God fills them with anxiety instead of purpose. So, as the psalm says, they sob for Egyptian food to (unconsciously) test whether God will nourish their souls.
God correctly interprets the sobbing as indicating a lack of faith, rather than a desire for tasty food. But instead of reassuring the people that their lives will be filled with meaning, God takes a punitive approach, and tells Moses:
To the people you shall say: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; then you will eat meat … Not for one day will you eat, nor for a couple of days, nor for five days, nor for ten days, nor for twenty days. Until a month of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and you are nauseated because of it! For you rejected God, who is in your midst … saying: Why did we leave Egypt for this? (Numbers 11:18-20)
I confess I am like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. My life is full of meaning and purpose right now, while my material needs are met and I spend my days drawing insights and inspirations from the Torah, and sharing my life with people I love. Yet there are empty times in my day, when I need to rest or alleviate chronic pain. At those times, anxiety about the future haunts me. What if my sense of purpose is not strong enough to carry my through old age, when I must face hardships and the deaths of people I love?
My first impulse, as these times, is to comfort myself by eating something tasty. Yet I know that if I eat too much, I will make myself sick in the long run. I would rather keep faith that God is with me, and my life will continue to be worthwhile no matter what happens. But how can I do that?
The only solution I know is to refocus and cultivate gratitude for the good life I have now. Do you have another solution to the anxiety of the Israelite? Please comment!