This week’s Torah parshah is Behaalotecha: Numbers 8:1 to 12:16. By now, much of what comes to pass should sound familiar. The parshah starts with another discussion of leadership and the priesthood. It then prescribes a second Pesach for those who happened to be ritually unclean for the first one and describes the consequences of not participating in the first Pesach if you had been ritually clean. Next, the Israelites’ wanderings through the desert are detailed which includes the divine appearing as natural phenomena and the very loud rumblings of the Israelites’ tummies. Finally, the parshah ends with a discussion of Moses’ wife and Miriam’s punishment.
While this Torah parshah contains one of my favorite images of the divine: as a pillar of fire by night and clouds by day, I’ve discussed it many times. See these posts. What I want to discuss is the Israelites’ hungry tummies.
In the parshah, when the Israelites become tired of eating manna all of the time, they complain to Moses saying, “…‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic,’ (verses 4 and 5).” Clearly, they are romanticising Egypt and their time there. It is as if life was better then, before G-d intervened. Moses, who has to listen to their complaining, understandingly, gets angry and takes out some of his anger about the Israelites’ whining at G-d. G-d is clearly miffed that they’d rather be back in Egypt than free and with their deity.
So, G-d says through Moses, “’Prepare yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, because you have cried in the ears of the Lord saying, ” ‘Who will feed us meat, for we had it better in Egypt.’ [Therefore,] the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat it not one day, not two days, not five days, not ten days, and not twenty days. But even for a full month until it comes out your nose and nauseates you. Because you have despised the Lord Who is among you, and you cried…, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’ (Numbers 11:18-20).” In other words, the deity is literally making them eat their words out of frustration that: first they don’t appreciate what G-d has done for them; and second, and relatedly, they romanticised their lives in Egypt.
That romance with the past seems to be a quite common experience. Considering the offence that they essentially denied everything that the deity had done for them and wished in essence therefore to return to slavery, they get off relatively scot-free. In fact, the punishment isn’t as harsh as many of the punishments for seemingly less trivial matters. Take for example in this same parshah when Miriam comes down with a skin disease after bad-mouthing Moses’ wife (we won’t discuss the fact that Aaron participates with Miriam, but escapes punishment. Patriarchy, anyone?), or when anyone who doesn’t offer the Pesach sacrifice is exiled.
In my opinion, this story in Behaalotecha is trying to teach us three things. First, the past probably wasn’t as good as we remember. Think slavery in Egypt. Second, our present situation may not be as bad as we think. We are free, have manna to eat and a deity to take care of us. Finally, and most importantly, we should be grateful for where we are now. Yes, the food might be bland and we are still lost in the desert. But, we have food. We are being guided by G-d. Really, life is better now then when we were slaves. It’s not perfect, but we’ll get there eventually. We know that because we trust in both the deity and the process (literally in this case to the Promised Land). We know, because there is a process that if we get too far ahead of ourselves, we’ll just make ourselves sick.
We could relate this to the feminist movement today. First, we, feminists, also have a history of romanticising our past. Some of us think the feminist movement was more radical in the seventies than it is today. Some of us may believe that pre-patriarchal society was peaceful, agrarian, simpler living: the perfect matriarchy. On a more (perhaps?) trivial note, many feminists, myself included, wish the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival still existed because of the experience of “The Land.”
At the same time, we also have a history of criticising the situation in which we currently find ourselves. This too parallels the Israelite story. When they romanticise the past, they are actually critiquing the present. Whether it’s the lack of young people self-identifying as feminists, the myriad of problems we experience in patriarchy or disappointment over the seeming disintegration of the category of woman, we criticise today.
So we romanticise the past and critique the present. But, we also often wish the future was already here! And, we often times become impatient waiting for it. We want to end rape and war and all forms of violence now. We want equal pay and better maternity leave this second. Why aren’t we living in harmony with our animal kindred and the earth yet? Give us freedom, education, opportunity and so much more! Now! (Stomping feet, banging knives and forks… now!)
Yet, the Israelites’ story from Behaalotecha should give us pause. In fact, their story inspires contemplation. Here’s what we could ask ourselves when we seem to be sick of the present and/or rushing to the future.
- What about our past isn’t as good as we remember?
- What about our current situation is better than before? For what are we grateful?
- How do we trust the process to lead us to a better future? What are the best ways to bring about that better future?
The Israelites skipped the process and got sick. Let’s not go there! Rather, let’s look at these together. Why don’t you start?
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.