When we first began practicing elbow bumps and hand washing (long enough to sing Happy Birthday twice all the way through), I don’t think any of us imagined that in June we would be just barely out of phase 1 of the Coronavirus pandemic. Lacking an informed view of the crisis, we didn’t think of its longer term implications. Events were postponed, but with the assumption that new dates would be set soon. Even when we went into shelter in place and experienced our first Zoom Seder, I remember thinking how we had the counting of the Omer to keep us focused until this was over.
The unease that many have been feeling during shelter in place along with the frequent references to “Groundhog Day” (the movie) convinces me that this year, more than others, we will identify with the Israelites in their desert wanderings. They knew that they weren’t taking the short cut along the coast, but until God’s decree that they would spend an entire generation in the wilderness, did they have any sense of how long it might take?
Our Torah portion this week, Bahaalotecha, is taken from the book of Numbers, a text affectionately called by many rabbis, “sefer kvetch”. The portion includes the first in a series of incidents in which the people complain and challenge Moses’ leadership, calling forth God’s wrath. Chapter 11 begins with an unusual word, the people were like complainers, or murmurers-mitoninim.
In other incidents during their wanderings, the people have a definite complaint, they lacked water or food, they had missed out on celebrating Passover for reasons that were not their fault. In all of these situations, God registered their legitimate complaint and worked out a solution, providing water or manna or a chance to celebrate Pesach Sheni.
In this case though the situation is different. They do not lack anything that they really need; the manna provides for all of their nutritional needs and some commentators, pointing to Exodus 12:38 with its reference to sheep and cattle, wonder if they even lacked meat. Their complaint is not really hunger or thirst, but more of a malaise, an emptiness, a boredom. It leads to a romanticizing of the past, of the good old days in Egyptian servitude.
Our normal response to their grumbling is to come down hard on the ungrateful Israelites, and to some extent that’s what God does, responding with quail in such quantity that it becomes loathsome to the people. Moses wonders if God can meet the needs of such a large assembly, and God does all that and more.
But this year I also want to read the text in a different way.
When our children are difficult during the shelter in place, when the younger ones regress and the older ones are moody, we are encouraged by mental health practitioners to remember that this experience is difficult for them as well. We are urged to consider the trauma they have endured losing their normal lives, their school routine, their friends, and seeing their parents on edge. These same experts would remind us to show compassion to ourselves as well; no matter how well we are coping, there is trauma, some amount of dis-regulation. There might be illness in our family or among our neighbors, or worry about an aging relative. We may be on the frontlines at the hospital, or worried about our own future employment or the fate of organizations and people we care deeply about. For most of us the norm is to have some measure of control over our lives, and now that agency has been taken from us.
It is interesting to me that the quail are only a part of God’s response: there is a second story of spiritual response blended into this chapter as well. The appointment of 70 elders is in part to help Moses, but they also prophesy in their own right. The two additional elders, 70 not being divisible by 12, make Joshua nervous but Moses is pleased, “would that all of God’s people were prophets”. God’s responding to the people’s complaints in this second way, on top of the physical provisions, speaks to me of a recognition of the psychological needs of the people at this time, a spiritual, psycho-social deficit which is more responsible for their unease than any physical lack.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin provides an unusual derivation of the word mitonen. He finds in it the Hebrew words met (dead) and onen (a mourner in the initial stage of loss). For him it is a measure of the how lost the Israelites felt, and what they really lacked. They feel in a holding pattern, making their lives without purpose. Wandering in the wilderness, there is nothing they can do to impact their future. He reminds us of the work of Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who focuses on the human need for meaning and purpose. Trapped in our own “Groundhog Day”, that is where we are today as well.
Our communities have experienced very significant measurable losses but even more than that is the loss of expectations and predictability. We don’t know what will be in the future. Will schools and universities open? Will round two of the virus be even worse in the fall? What will the holidays be like? Our religious communities have responded with practical aid and that is helpful. But also important is the spiritual support for our adults as well as our young people. The answer to the mitoninim ultimately is not meat but meaning. May we succeed in providing that to our people today as well.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).