Chaos, Moping and Mopping – Comments on Torah Portion Beha’alotekha

June 12, 2020

Chaos, Moping and Mopping 2020 (adapted from 2019)

The brilliance of the Torah as “Literary Philosophic-Psychology” is evident in this week’s Torah portion, “Be’ha’aloteka.” We see here an interplay of anxiety and fear, an inner chaos, that turns into a fixation on food and then into general dysthymia – a profound lack of well-being.

After about 13 months at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites are to break camp and begin their trek to the ancient homeland in Canaan. Within just a few verses, the people become “k-mit’onenim” – “like moaners.” Hebrew linguists place this word, “mit’onenim” “moaning”, somewhere between “mit’lonen” “complain” and “mit’abel” “mourn.” I think of “moping” (not mopping) as a dejected state, sunk in despair, irritable, and usually looking for someone to blame. Why the moaning and moping? What just happened?

Reality. Perhaps they had been under the illusion, a futile hope, that they could just stay at Mt. Sinai. Maybe the God of the Universe wouldn’t notice, would forget them there. Like a person who procrastinates responding to a legal summons, they hoped against reality. I actually had a counseling case like that – a man who angrily threw away a court order to appear – “Shtuyot!”, he explained to me, “ridiculous.” Now, this fellow knew in his rational brain that the court would not eventually just lose interest in him. Some other part of him was testing what he knew.

We all have some weird part of our thinking that is entirely disconnected from the real world, some imaginative tree in Meinong’s jungle (it’s a thing; you can look it up), that loves to test reality. Maybe reality – and God – are not as firm as they appear. Kids often operate under the assumption, often correctly, that parents forget, overlook, or lose interest in something. Maybe reality is like a distracted parent? Test it, and find out.

And then reality hits, and sometimes hits hard. Show up to court or we will arrest you. Inexorable consequences. Act out and then get a dose of the truth. The Israelites received a final order to quit the premises and move on to the next part of their lives. They moped, moaned, complained and then – (and this is brilliant!) got really, super hungry for meat, a craving, a “ta’avah” (just how Eve saw the Tree in the Garden of Eden). Then they went on a roll. They suddenly remembered the all-you-can-eat fish they ate for free in Egypt! And the free salad bar! “Cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic”, the Torah lists for us.

The inconvenient fact that the food was not free – they had been brutalized slaves – was obscured from memory. This is, indeed, part of the human condition – in the ego self, we sometimes remember the past in a particular way in order to justify our current state of thinking and feeling. Instead of working things through in the painful process of confronting reality with wisdom, we come up with slogans – “free fish and salad bar!” and God and Moses become the enemy with this newly discovered (false) history.

The Torah at this point digresses and reminds us that they had the manna from Heaven to eat – coriander seed that looks like bdellium (which grew on the river of Havilah, that flowed out of the Garden of Eden). Once prepared, we are told, it tasted like dough kneaded with oil. Small sweet cakes.

Effectively, God is leading them away from Sinai toward Canaan through the reconstituted Garden of Eden – they had water, milk from their animals, and cookies. But, like Eve and Adam, they had a craving, a chaos within, that they thought could be treated by going back to Egypt “where they ate for free.” At some level, they hated freedom and yearned for jail.

There is a two-fold response to this crisis – I’ll just discuss one here. God instructs Moses to gather 70 elders into the Tent of Meeting. There, God would descend upon Moses and increase the spirit on Moses, and emanate it among the 70 Elders, who then prophesied.

Not prophecy, as in telling the future, but prophecy in its original sense – be filled with and communicate the spirit of God. In our language: to counter chaos with meaning and purpose, with duty and dignity, with virtue, wisdom and connection to the soul.

The depth of this cannot be overstated. We all at times feel an inner chaos that manifests into a craving – power, fame, possessions, control, money, addictions, gratification of desire. At other times, that inner chaos has us scan our environment to find or impute chaos to others – we have to criticize and correct them, often in a way proportionate not to what they did, but to the degree of chaos within ourselves. Some people in a particularly low spiritual state attack anyone convenient – even and especially the innocent.

What we do with the chaos – in ourselves and in others – defines our character. I will give you a real life, personal example. Many years ago, we had an event at the Sophos Café. We had the perfect of storm of way more people showing up than had signed up, on one hand, and kitchen staff hired for the night not showing up, on the other. We were suddenly short of kitchen crew and waiting staff. I was dividing my time between be an affable host and washing dishes; Meirav was busy trying to bring some order to the chaos. People began to complain, and we put the word out: We are in a tight spot.

Most responded quite generously. Patiently waiting for their orders, enjoying the musical program and the endless procession of bread with za’atar and olive oil flowing from the kitchen while the food orders were prepared one by one. Several took up the challenge and put on an apron, helped out it the kitchen, grabbed a mop or waited tables. Mopping, not moping.

Others chose to grumble and complain. A few walked out in a huff.

We are all walking this rocky path together toward our inevitable deaths, without enough wisdom or time. Let’s at least not make it harder on each other.

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