Friday, June 9, 2017

Behaaloscha, Bamidbar 9:7 and 11:4. Consuming Passions

There's an interesting contrast in our parsha between two groups.  Both had their basic needs, they were missing nothing essential, and both were distraught over their frustrated passion for something better. These are the Te'meiyim (9:7) and the Mis'onenim (11:4). (For the purposes of this discussion, I am combining the Mis'onenim and the Assafsuf, based on the Alschich and more.)

The Te'meiyim knew perfectly well that they could not bring the Korban Pesach.  This is a basic halacha that they were taught in Mitzrayim, and they obviously knew it.  So if you're pattur, if you have a din oneis, then that's it.  The same Ribono Shel Olam that gave the mitzvah also said that under the circumstances, they could not fulfill the mitzva.  But they couldn't stand it, they came to Moshe Rabbeinu and begged him for an eitzah, because the inability to enjoy the mitzva was so painful.

Then you have the Assafsuf, who had the Mahn, the most nutritious food in the world.  They knew that the Ribono shel Olam had made it available to them so that they could live a more spiritual life in perfect health without any patschkerai, שעשה לי כל צרכי.  But they said that their souls were dry as dust, they couldn't sleep at night, dreaming of the tasty foods they used to have in Mitzrayim.  Yes, we have all we need, but we don't have what we desire.

Two worlds.  There will always be people whose main interest in life is to experience the most exotic and most rare delicacies, who smirk at those who live simple lives but derive their greatest satisfaction from being mehadeir far beyond what is necessary in halacha and mitzvos - two disparate groups: the Chevra and the Kadisha*.

I think that this contrast is presented not only to highlight the difference, to show how high or how low a person can choose to live their lives.  I think the Torah is teaching us that the two groups have a great deal in common.  Both of these groups expressed the same human tendency, the tendency to seek something in life that excites you, a passion that fills your heart and mind.  It's human nature, but human nature is an engine, and an engine can power many different kinds of machines.  The same passion that inflames the animalistic drives can be the "engine" that powers the quest for purity and Godliness. There's nothing wrong with desiring a physical pleasure. What's wrong is allowing the desire to become so fiery and consuming an addiction that it dominates your life decisions. The Asafsuf, deprived of their pleasures, were so frustrated that they regretted leaving Mitzrayim.

On reflection, one realizes that the "engine" metaphor actually is used in our parsha.  The parsha begins with a description of Aharon's lighting of the Menora, a fire that spread enlightenment and spirituality.  But later, in the parsha of the Mis'onenim, the punishment was a fire that burned around the edges of the camp- ותבער בם אש ה' ותאכל בקצה המחנה.  The fire was meant to teach the Misonenim that they were missing the opportunity to direct their passion toward Torah and Mitzvos and dveikus, so that their experience in the Midbar would make them the angels they were capable of becoming.  They were using their fire to inflame their desires.  As the Alshich says, 
היתה עליהם אז למשא עבודת ה' ועמל התורה, וקצים בפרישות תאוות חומרם. על כן היו עושים מצות ה' בעצבון כמתאוננים, כקצים בעבודתו יתברך. אך לא ערבו אל לבם להוציא מפיהם מלים. כי בושו מקונם יתברך וממשה רבם. והוא עון פלילי, כמאמר הכתוב (דברים כח, מז) "תחת אשר לא עבדת"' וכו' "בשמחה ובטוב לבב".
Unfortunately, they did not learn their lesson, and the immediate result was the episode of the Slav.  We're hungry!  We can't stand this constant perfect Mahn, we want the hedonistic experience of Taavah- his'avu Ta'ava, they wanted "desire."  It's the same fire, but Aharon used it to light the Menorah, and for the Mis'onenim it only inflamed their hedonistic desire for good and plentiful meat.  The Torah teaches us בהעלותך את הנרות אל מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות.  Use the fire to light a Menorah.

It is easy to say "Be disciplined and thoughtful" and "Don't impetuously pursue wordly pleasures." But is there something you can do to help make it happen? The Torah gives us good advice by showing us another contrast, and this time, once you see it, it is obvious. 
Who were the ones that began the complaints about food? The אספסוף, the Assafsuf. The Torah tells us that it is easy enough to be influenced by an environment that focuses on the enhancement and fulfillment of physical desire. Bamidbar 11:4
 והאספסף אשר בקרבו התאוו תאוה וישבו ויבכו גם בני ישראל ויאמרו מי יאכלנו בשר  
The best way to combat this is to create an environment that encourages the pursuit of spiritual growth, a focus on Torah and Middos. To do this, one needs to seek out the company of Gedolei Torah and Marbitzei Torah. Moshe was told אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל, Esfah li, gather Gedolei Torah. Bamidbar 11:16
ויאמר ה' אל משה אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל אשר ידעת כי הם זקני העם ושטריו ולקחת אתם אל אהל מועד והתיצבו שם עמך
Here you have the stark contrast between the אספסוף and the אספה לי., between the lowlifes that get together for a good time, and the tzadikim that gather to do avodas Hashem. The only way to avoid the רדיפת התאוות הבהמיות ובקשת תענוגי העולם influence of the אספסוף is by cultivating a relationship with the אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל so that you can learn how to live a life of חכם לב יקח מצוות.

(I don't mean that the Torah requires asceticism, or that Olam Hazeh and Olam Haba are mutually exclusive. I just meant that an undue focus on ta'anugei olam hazeh is an impediment to growth in ruchniyus. As Rabbeinu Bachaya says in Toldos,

השתדלותו של אדם במאכל ובמשתה והיותו משתעשע בציד שהם תענוגי הגוף בעולם הזה הלא היא סיבה לבזות עבודת השי"ת ויראתו לעשותם טפל ותענוגי הגוף עקר, וזאת היתה מדתו של עשו, הוא שאמר ויאכל וישת ויקם וילך ויבז עשו את הבכורה)

*   This originally said "and the Nosei arono shel Yosef.  Rabbi Dr. Nachum J cavilled that they were Mishael and Eltzaphan.  I had chosen Nosei because I thought it sounded better.  As a compromise, I changed it to Chevra Kadisha, which covers both Mishael/Eltzaphan and the Nosei arono shel Yosef.  It sounds peculiar, but it's correct.  Either one is better than "The barbecue and the bar bei rav."

This parsha contains a far greater concentration of forms of the word "asifa" than any other parsha in the Torah. I mentioned two, the contrasting Asafsuf and Esfah li. But there are many others, including Moshe being "gathered" to his house before the Slav came, and the gathering of the Slav, and Klal Yisrael not traveling ad hei'aseif Miriam, twice. I'd love to hear a way to tie them all together.

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