Sunday, May 31, 2015

Complaining--It's Not About the Meat (Portion Beha'alotechah)

Sometimes it is helpful—even essential—to complain.

More commonly, our complaints are not really about what they purport to be, but are, instead, symptoms of a poor attitude in need of adjustment.

Ecclesiastes famously teaches that there is a time and season for everything.  So it goes with complaining.  If no one complained about unjust, inequitable, and intolerable situations, nothing would change for the better.  We need whistle-blowers and activists—justified complainers—to speak out against the unacceptable status quo.  Thus, early in the Torah’s exodus narrative, the Israelites complain about a real lack of food and water, and God responds respectfully, providing them with what they need.

However, most of the time our complaining is merely the outward expression of our own inner negativity.   In such cases, our whining is not ameliorated when we get what we supposedly want, for we will always find a new excuse to keep up the kvetching.  There is no limit to the potential objects of discontent for fundamentally dissatisfied people.

Such is the nature of the complaining in this week’s portion, Beha’alotecha.  The Israelites carp at Moses: “Who will feed us meat?”  Yet, as Rashi notes in his commentary, they actually have plenty of meat to eat.  Torah tells us that when we left Egypt, “A great multitude went up with them, and also flocks and cattle.”  Forty years later, as we prepare to enter the land of Israel, Torah again points out, “The children of Reuben had much cattle.”  In other words, the Israelites had no shortage of steak.  As God and Moses both recognize, their craving and complaining is not really about the meat.  It is, instead, a reflection of the Israelites’ own failure of faith and imagination.

This week, every time you are tempted to complain about something, consider your motivation.  Are you questioning the status quo in order to change it for the better?  Or are you just giving voice to your own, deeper discontent?  If you can honestly affirm the former, then speak (and act) up!  If not, then reflect on ways to shift your attitude.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Tyranny of "Mine" (portion Behar)

It starts so early.  The first word of many a child is “Mine!”  Thus begins a life of striving after ownership.  Much of American culture is built around this propensity to crave and accumulate, with multi-billion dollar industries manipulating us to want stuff we don’t need.
Of course, as Ecclesiastes recognized long ago, this is a kind of vanity, a striving after wind.  Indeed, it is far worse than empty gesture, for the impulse behind “mine!” is at the heart of much of our human unhappiness.  No matter how much we acquire, the urge for more is never satisfied.
Given this crushing human propensity to possess stuff (and sometimes people, too), our weekly portion, Behar, offers what I believe to be the most radical teaching in the entire Torah.  Consider its words:
‘When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the Eternal Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop,  but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. 
‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. . .   It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, [e]and each of you shall return to his family. 
 ‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. 
This is extraordinary.  Every seven years we give the land a compete rest and every fifty years we redistribute it so that no one is left poor and landless.  This guards against the grossly unjust distribution of wealth that increasingly undermines both America’s and Israel’s economy.  It also reminds us that the assertion of “Mine!” is ultimately idolatrous, for in the end, all of Creation belongs only to the Creator.
Imagine if an America politician were to propose such a policy!  This is not a platform upon which one is likely to get elected, in either of our major political parties.  Yet here it is in our Torah, as a core part of its vision of a just society and a critical antidote to our consistent craving for more power and possessions.  It may not become economic policy any time soon, but it remains essential for us as a way out of the trap of materialism into which we sometimes stumble.
Henry David Thoreau reminds us that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Why?  Because what is wild is, by definition, that which cannot be owned.  This is why Torah was given in the wilderness, a wild place, open to all, possessed by none.  As we move toward Shavuot and our celebration of receiving Torah, consider: how can I open myself to more wildness and escape the clutch of my impulse to insist upon mine?

For more on the sabbatical and jubilee years, and their potential to transform our contemporary culture, see the work of Hazon, starting at: