As always, I am surprised at how the stories and lessons in the Torah are able to transcend their times and reach into our own. Understanding how requires projecting and transposing their symbolism into our present era. This week’s reading, Parashah Beha’alotekha , addresses a range of instructions and events in the Israelites’ post-Exodus sojourn that include Tabernacle/Mishkan rituals for the Levites (priestly class) and the establishment of a second Passover (Pesach Sheni) for those who were not permitted to participate in the first one due to ritual impurities. These are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)
Today, I’ve decided to focus on a third element that is also addressed in this parashah; the events caused by the sometimes tragic disconnect between what we remember and what is. The images above are selected from the illustrations for this parashah and presented here with a brief explanation of their symbolism.
The figure floating above the sand is an allegory for some of the Israelites who have come perilously close to idolatry in their weariness and boredom with the abundant supply of manna (buried in the sand). I imagined them as a hybrid creature of man and fish; a parody of the pagan fish-god Dagon angrily demanding meat while voicing idealized memories of Egypt’s plentiful cuisine. He is holding a backwards-facing letter ‘nun’ that appears twice in this section of Parashah Beha’alotekha, surrounding the account of the Israelites leaving Mt. Sinai and their subsequent rebellious demands. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz, also known as the ‘Kli Yakar’ explains this phenomenon. In the Aramaic language, the word for fish is ‘nune‘. A fish instinctively turns towards water, as it understands where it can remain alive. Conversely, the Israelites, in their eagerness for the Promised Land, left Mt. Sinai without remorse, turning away from their source of life; acting metaphorically as a backward ‘nune‘ or fish. God’s retribution for their attitude comes at Kivroth HaTaavah (also called ‘The Graves of Craving’), a day’s march from the Sinai wilderness. A multitude of quails descend on the camps, sating their hunger, but leaving behind a devastating plague. Accordingly, the second backwards nun appears just out of reach near a hand protruding in the agony of death. A discussion in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 75b) offers a mystical foundation for God’s choice of quails as meat. This type of bird is naturally saturated with fat and oil. Oil, in mystical texts is often compared to the sefirot of Chochma, or wisdom. So the oily quail meat may have been an altruistic attempt to impart wisdom to the Israelites, but one that failed since they were too attached to their own bodily needs to attend to their spiritual needs.
Moving forward, I find a potential parallel between those ancient Israelites and our religious fundamentalists, politicians and the wealthy 1% who support them. In their ideological nostalgia for the 1950’s, an era of burgeoning national prosperity and civic growth fueled by two disastrous world wars, those fatalistic desires have become a foundation of quicksand beneath us, eroding moral behavior, political and social balance within a gravely ailing economy. Despite the often clairvoyant voices of media pundits and commentators, we seem stuck in that quicksand. Like those unfortunate Israelites eager to satisfy their hunger, we too are enslaved by our creature comforts and the tantalizing consumer culture we’ve created that enables them.
Nevertheless, I believe we have the potential to be better than our material needs by looking inwards and trying to understand the essence of our humanity that such materialism is decimating. Do we truly need the latest SUV, grand McMansion or expensive ocean cruise? If so, why?