Light from the Sidra

Beha'alotcha ('When you set up') 5th June 2015. 19th Sivan 5775

Torah: Numbers 8:1-12:16. Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14(10)-4:7*

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Born to Kvetch

Over the last week or so, while driving round Scotland, I’ve been rediscovering Simon and Garfunkel’s wonderful 1967 album Bookends. One of the tracks features a series of recordings of old people but when I used to play the original vinyl disc I couldn’t make out what the old folk were saying. On my car stereo, however, I discovered the track consists of elderly Jewish folk kvetching. ‘Kvetch’ is one of those great Yiddish words that are almost self-explanatory. There’s a book called Born to Kvetch and even if your Yiddish is zilch you kind of know, just by looking at the cover, what it’s about.

‘The Jews’, said Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg, ‘always complained, kvetching about false gods…’Ginsberg was wrong. In this week’s Sidra, in chapters 8-10 of Numbers, the Israelites obeyed HASHEM but suddenly, in chapter 11, they begin to complain about their misfortunes and the manna they have to eat every day instead of the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they ate in the good old days when they were slaves in Egypt. Even Aaron and Miriam complained because they were not being accorded the recognition they thought they deserved. Who wants to play second fiddle to their kid brother!

Some Jewish commentators are of the opinion that the grumblers were the mixed multitude, the non-Jews who joined themselves to Israel at the Exodus. Although it would be nice to think such was the case and that Israel constantly obeyed HASHEM, as they had in chapters 8-10, Numbers 11:4 reveals that everyone – the Israelites included – were guilty of kvetching. Not even Aaron the High Priest and Miriam the Prophetess were free from blame.

During the Passover Seder, Jewish people sing Dayeinu – ‘It would have been enough’ – but for the Israelites in the wilderness it was not enough that HASHEM had judged Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, that he had parted the Sea of Reeds, that he had provided food and water in the desert and that he had given Israel victory over their enemies. None of that was enough. It’s easy to imagine that had we been in their place we would have behaved differently but Jews and Gentiles are all the same; we all have an evil inclination. One day we cheerfully obey God and the next we blame our misfortunes on him.

I’ve known Jewish people become angry when they are referred to as the chosen people. Like Reb Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, they feel that being ‘chosen’ is a burden. Tevye wants to know why God doesn’t choose someone else for a change.

So let’s face it; we’re all guilty of the sin of kvetching. The world is not only full of grumpy old men and women; it’s also full of grumpy young people and children!

It’s tempting to think that the Jewish people might have reason to kvetch. Their afflictions throughout history have been terrible and Jewish thinkers have struggled to discover reasons for their sufferings. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, for example, suggested that Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust were the reincarnated souls of sinners suffering their karmic come-uppance. When a wedding hall in Versailles, France collapsed, killing 24 Jewish people and injuring more than 300 other guests, Knesset member Rabbi Meir Porush explained that the tragedy occurred because, ‘We do not behave as we are ordered by God to behave.’ Rabbi Reuven Levy went further, explaining to the newspaper Kol ha’Ir, ‘The main lesson to learn from the Versailles wedding hall disaster is that all mixed dancing is incest… Every time a woman dances with a man she’s not married to, both are punishable by death.’

Make what you will of those rabbinic statements but in the Sidra the sufferings of Israel were directly linked to ingratitude and murmuring. Ingratitude is a serious offence to God and although I’m certainly not claiming that Israel’s sufferings can be directly attributed to their sins, the ingratitude of Jews and Gentiles will one day be punished.

According to the Talmudic tractate Menachot 43b, ‘A man is bound to say one hundred blessings daily.’ To encourage Jews who are awed by the obligation to bless God so many times in the day, Rabbi Arthur Segal points out that the Talmud lists about twenty blessings just for saying grace after three meals. ‘So there,’ he says, ‘are 60 blessings right off the bat. Another 40 come from three daily prayer services and others prayed throughout the day, like when we wash hands, awake in the morning and so forth.’

But think of the number of Jewish people who not only refuse to bless God but also deny his existence. How many Jewish people thank God for the land of Israel which, as the prophets foretold, was restored to them as their national homeland? Some of the most virulent enemies of the Jewish state today are Jewish.

How many Jewish people are grateful to God for the Hebrew Scriptures? The Bible is arguably God’s greatest gift to the Jewish people and yet how many Jewish people, secular or religious, read the Tanakh daily to discover the will of HASHEM.

The saddest act of ingratitude is that so few Jewish people refuse to believe in the Messiah, who was foretold by the prophets but was despised and rejected by the very people he came to save.

And, of course, there is the kvetching and grumbling. It’s not only the Jewish people, of course, who are guilty of ingratitude. The whole world stands condemned for its ingratitude but for HASHEM’s own people to express so little gratitude to their God is heart-breakingly sad.

Today’s Parasha calls all – Jews and Gentiles – to be thankful to HASHEM. But the Jewish people have more reason to be thankful to him than any other nation. Writing in the period of the Second Temple, Rabbi Saul of Tarsus wrote that he had ‘great grief’ and ‘unceasing pain’ in his heart for the Jewish people because of their rejection of the Messiah: ‘For I could pray that I myself were accursed from the Messiah for my brothers, my physical kinsmen. They are the people of Israel. The legal right as sons is theirs, and the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the service, and the promises. The fathers are theirs, and the Messiah is physically from them. God, who is over all, be blessed forever. Amen.’

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