Beha'alotekha 5777 - 10 June 2017 - Mind your 'Please and Thank You's

Post date: Jun 9, 2017 2:57:10 PM

This week, we read the passage Beha'alotekha (Numbers 8:1-12:16). See here for a previous synopsis and discussion.

The parsha continues on to explain an incident of tension between God and the Israelites. Chapter 11 of Numbers begins va’yi’hi ha’am ki’mit’on’nim – and the nation [of Israel] was like a [group of] murmurers/complainers. When God hears the complaining, God becomes angry and tochal (devours) the camp. Still, the people continue to whine and complain, saying that the manna God has given them is insufficient. They say that they wish there was meat to eat and that they “remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic, but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nothing except this manna to look to.”

Reaching the end of his equanimity, Moses breaks down and has a kind of lover’s spat with God! He asks rhetorically, “Did I birth all these people so it’s my responsibility to suckle them?” He finally pleads, “If this is my lot, kill me [God], I pray you, right now, if I have found favor in your sight!” Instead of killing Moses, God sends a flock of quails to the Israelite camp, in order to fulfill their desire for meat (and food other than manna).

This passage, to me, epitomizes the popular phrase “first world problems” – the idea that when you have many basic needs fulfilled on a consistent, predictable basis, other (often, less necessary-for-survival) needs become significantly more relevant to your daily existence. I think about this during the frequent summer thunderstorms that have come to define my daily existence in the Deep South. Many times, these thunderstorms cause power outages, which can result in extended periods of time without Internet access (the electricity is usually restored quickly, but the Internet companies have more trouble keeping up). I find myself in utter disbelief that the cable company could leave me stranded, without access to the online world, for hours. I call and complain, drive to my office to check the connection there, and obsess over the horror of being without email and Facebook and the New York Times.

Then, I become horrified with myself – millions of people in the world are without food, clean water, shelter, and clothing and I have the audacity to complain about my lack of access to high-speed wireless Internet? Unfortunately, self-loathing does not help – it does not give basic necessities to those who need them, nor does it help me feel better about my situation. So, how do we handle “first world problems”? How should the Israelites have handled their “free nation problems”?

Perhaps we can practice more gratitude. Gratitude allows us to focus on what we have, on the wonderful things and people and situations in our lives. However, gratitude does not negate our needs. Being grateful for one’s good health does not negate our loneliness, just as being grateful for the incredible relationships we have in our lives does not negate our desire for good health. Gratitude is not self-loathing or deprivation or self-sacrifice – gratitude is a mindset. It is the ability to first consider what we have, instead of first thinking of what we want. Had the Israelites practiced gratitude, they may have been able to ask Moshe for more food options without incurring the wrath of God. I think we can all strive to practice gratitude more often – encouraging ourselves to recognize that which we are blessed to have in our lives before focusing on that which is lacking.

Our ancient rabbis decreed that even in the Olam Haba’a, in the messianic world to come, we will be obligated to continue the daily Thanksgiving Offering. Though there will be no sin for a Sin Offering, no mistakes for a Guilt Offering, no hungry for a Wave Offering, no war for a Peace Offering, if we lack gratitude, even the Messiah will go away!

The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero put it most succinctly. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”