Shabbat b’he’alotecha: Craving in the Wilderness

Nobody who has ever done any leadership work within the Jewish community, or indeed any community, does not feel the words of this weeks parashah deep in their bones.


“Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed your favour? that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me. carry them upon your bosom as a nurse carries an infant...”

And Moses carries on like a harassed housewife to her penny pinching husband...

“where am I going to get meat to feed all this people when they whine and say ‘give us meat to eat’”?

Or is it his fault, is Moses paying the price for his top down management approach. If he had engaged people a bit earlier on, in a co-operative leadership exercise, perhaps they wouldn’t be moaning now.


We looked this morning at the longings of the Israelites and the so -called riffraff, the mixed multitude, for meat and for vegetables and we found that their cravings were actually quite complex. They are longing for meat but we know that according to both Numbers and Exodus, there was meat to eat, both when God sends the quails and from their large herds and flocks. Ramban, Nachmanides suggests that though there was lots of meat, only the top people got to eat it. Another consequence perhaps, of Moses’ hierarchical management policy? It was the Israelites, he suggests, who were craving the vegetables; vegetables they found in the gardens and fields of Egypt, He imagines them wandering, dispersed and homeless, with no land of their own, helping themselves where they could. Although Nachmanides lived in Spain, he conjures exactly the world of the Jews of Europe in the early modern period. With no rights of residence, the vast majority wandered the countryside finding a bare living through begging and mutual support. He also says, in the words of the midrash, that the foods they craved were exactly those that weren’t good to eat. Not for adults, but for mothers who are nursing their babies. This resonates powerfully with Moses as mother here in our parashah, holding Israel like a desperate needy infant, and feeling that he-or she, cannot manage alone. So, part of this wilderness journey, which in the end involves the birth and growth of a whole new generation, involves a return to an emotional infancy. In this drama of re-birth, the people are fed like babies, from only one source.

The theme here, then, hunger, desire, and anger, is related to dependency. This cry for meat, for fish and even for the vegetables taken from the gardens of Egypt, is a cry for freedom.. They are sick of being infants, of living on the creamy manna, that appears each day no matter what, no matter whether they want it or need it. Ramban even says that what they really crave are the burnt, dusty, putrefied foods of Egypt. Better a cake you have burnt yourself than the same old dependability of regulation manna.

Two things happen next. The first is an act of democratization. Moses’ prophetic spirit will be shared among 70 dependable leaders, so that he never again must carry the people on his own. The second act is a bit more ghastly. A wind from God sweeps up the quail and drives them into the nets of the people, who gather them greedily, eat as much as they can and then, are struck by a plague. You could say they choked on their greed. The most killing notion, if you pardon the pun, is in the name of the place where this sorry tale happens, kibroth -hattaavah, ‘graves of craving’. We might soften the blow by imagining that it is the craving and not the cravers buried there. But all the same, the message is clear. Moses has more help and a lot less people to look after. Perhaps this marks the end of the total dependency of the first year of the wilderness wandering. Perhaps too the only way open for the people in the desert to find adulthood is through rebellion and even death.

You might say, as many thinkers do, that they are longing for the regrettable comforts of slavery, as slavery was all the Israelites ever knew. In this way, then, killing off the cravings and even the cravers, is a kind of purification, a move on from mental slavery as well as physical slavery, and attachment to the past. We are reminded of the Buddhist teaching that all desire is suffering, and that is certainly true here.

But there is something worth rescuing in this sorry tale. The people who crave are people like us. Utterly imperfect and certainly not purists, they are ordinary in their desires for just a bit more freedom. The trouble is, the things they want are so basic, so visceral, and so lacking in vision. The people who crave have lost sight of the goal. They are feeling like babies and acting like kids. And so Moses behaves like a put upon mother. Perhaps God recognizes how inappropriate this is, since God first sorts out delegation and democratization, and only then sends the quails.

I don’t know why, but I feel a real sadness about the name of this place, kibbrot ha-taavah, the burial grounds of craving, perhaps because I identify also with the rebels. And because I think that craving, even a kind of hollow desire like this one, is a powerful force for change. I can sympathies with the people, fed up with their dependance, perhaps even more than Moses, the disgruntled leader. At any rate, this conflict story, like all the others in the Torah, reassures me that conflict seems to be central to the drive for change in Judaism. Were it not for the desire for the foods of Egypt, there would be no sharing of power. This sharing of power made a space for the existence of the prophets. And they raised their voices against the nations, their rulers, the priesthood and the people. This raising of voices, this capacity for dissent, is central to our identity. It doesn’t always pay off, and it certainly didn’t for the cravers of our story, but we are in part their descendants and we hear their voices still. Perhaps we speak with their voice in the spirit of rebellion, not always constructive, but not necessarily destructive. If we are to enagage with a Judaism that is meaningful to us now, it must be in part a product of our desires, and our craving. Not for meat or for garlic or even for onions, but for a substantial form of nourishment, that feeds and sustains our independance and that links us to our past. Perhaps the cravers can help us get there.

© Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu 6/6/2009

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