This week’s Torah reading begins the pattern of testiness between God and the Jewish people in the desert. I’ve written about the whininess of the Jews many times over the years. There were articles about the proper way to complain, as taught in the modern world by Dr. Guy Winch and in the Torah by the daughters of Tzelofchad. Other years I’ve emphasized the difficulties of travel in forbidding terrains, or with children. But this year I saw a different analysis of the phenomenon in the writings of Reb Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (1753-1825). It’s wonderful to be enlightened by a book called the Maor V’Shemesh (The Light and the Sun).
Allow me to set the scene. The Jews are finally on the move towards Eretz Yisrael after being encamped in the shadow of Har Sinai for almost a year (or 58 chapters of Chumash, chapter 19 of Shmot through chapter 10 of Bamidbar). It only takes a few days before the whining begins. Chapter 11 begins with some type of general complaining. This is followed by a punishment from God. Then there is the specific complaint about the menu in the desert. Rav Epstein begins by asking the very reasonable question: What is the nature of this first complaint, and how does it fit into the pattern of discontent in the wilderness?
The word which introduces the negativity of the Jews is K’MITONENIM. This is various translated as ‘began to complain (Rav Kaplan)’, ‘took to complaining bitterly (JPS)’, ‘became complainers of evil (Alter)’, ‘took to seeking complaints (ArtScroll)’. There are other translations (mostly Christian) which suggest murmured, grumbled, griped, grouched and, my favorite, weren’t happy. That last one is an understatement.
The next bothersome issue is that in this major instance of whining the actual content of the complaint isn’t specified. There are traditional commentaries (the Ramban in the lead) who suggest that a general spirit of rebellion was permeating the desert society as the nation moved further from inhabited areas. Prof Robert Alter offers that this episode is the first of many such episodes and acts as an introduction, or presents a ‘general paradigm’ for the many incidents of unreasonable complaint which triggered Divine wrath.
Now we turn to the Maor V’Shemesh. He begins, reasonably enough, by pointing out that we have no idea what triggered this outburst of discontent. The Rebbe then develops a theory based on the term MITONENIM. The root of this word is ONEN. Sadly, we know this term from our mourning practices. This is the expression which describes mourners from the moment of the loss of a loved one until the actual burial, at which point they become AVEILIM.
So, it’s upon this term that we must focus. He explains the incident as ‘they descended into sadness (perhaps ‘depression’, ATZVUT), this is based on the term ONEN.’ This is a horrible situation because to God depression (MARA SH’CHORA, we know this term from Shaul, Shmuel I 16:14) is hated and repulsive. This mental state is closely related to idolatry. This overwhelming desire for physical pleasures which develops from these dark thoughts bring the nation to the open rebellion against God and Moshe. The Ramban is clear that the appeal of idolatry is desires or lust for all manner of physical pleasures.
This whole depressing scene is so different from the joyous departure from Har Sinai, just a few days prior. It seems that all the spirituality and good will which had been established during the year at the foot of Mt. Sinai was quickly dissipating. The veneer of spirituality and culture was quickly evaporating in the desert air to reveal the ugliest side of their previous slave status.
It’s no surprise that many of Reb Epstein’s contemporaries, especially in the Chassidic world, felt strongly that depression and sadness were deadly enemies of the Torah life style. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who personally suffered from depression, famously wrote: It’s a great mitzva to be joyous.
The continuation of the story into more specific complaining and then granting the quail and restructuring the leadership makes a lot of sense. The Jews have to see that God, and Moshe as well, are aware of their difficulties. Nevertheless, there is a disappointment in how quickly the Jews lost all the wonderful experiences from the idyllic days before the departure.
Travel is tough. There can be many difficulties along the way. The Jews are sadly immersed in YE’USH, despair. Rebbe Nachman differentiated between a broken heart and depression. A broken heart, like after a tragedy, can be healed, because there is a specific cause, which, with time, can be overcome. However, depression and despair over an ongoing situation or a future fear, is extremely difficult to escape. We need the ‘Healer of broken hearts and Binder of the despairing (Tehillim 147:3)’ to help us emerge from the MARA SHECHORA.
The Jewish nation must stay strong in the face of all adversity. That’s just as true today as it was 3200 years ago. With restored faith in God, we emerged from the desert. Our people today will move forward with that same power and support from on High. We can never lose faith in destiny of Israel, NETZACH YISRAEL LO YISHAKER.