Jewish Life Kolot

KOLOT – Fish for free? Parshat Baha’alotcha

by Vera Schwarcz

How do we manage to turn good into bad? How do we manage to miss so often moments of blessing due to some seeming lack in our lives, some backward gaze that clouds the vision before us? This week’s Parsha speaks about this predicament starkly: The Jewish people stood as one at Mount Sinai. They are about to journey directly to the Land of Israel, everyone has special tasks and there is, literally, food from heaven – manna. And yet.

A gnawing discontent sweeps through the community again and again. The people start to act as if mourning for themselves – ke’mitonenim.. “and it was bad in the ears of God.” The divine has no ears other than those of our own innermost souls. The “bad” was in our ears: We spoke only of poverty when there was an abundance of fullness. We bent our hears to the voices of the rabble egging us on with discontent: “We remember the fish we use to eat in Egypt for free!” For free?  In reality, we were enslaved, beaten, drained to the core, dispirited.

But oh, how those fish shine in the mind’s eye along with cucumbers, melons, garlic. These details leach out all the glory from the present. They reduce us to bodily wants, more imagined than real. Moshe’s reaction is that of a pained parent. He, too, is worn out by ceaseless complaints, by fake memories. God hears his weariness and rains down meat upon the people, more than they can chew, sickeningly much.

Through illness, some awake. Some begin to see afresh the bounty they had all along. Perhaps this is our challenge, too, in the wake of the coronavirus and the violence tearing America apart. The pain of rage, of racism, of looting, of being truly sick. is real. But our ongoing blessings are more real still. It is a matter of seeing straight, of not “speaking evil in the ears of God.”

As regulations lighten here, the botanical gardens are open and  giant lotus are beginning to blossom upon huge platters of green–a vision of fullness and beauty to outweigh imaginary fish for free. In  the hills of Hebron wild wheat frames the view in gold, while another siglon trees (Jacaranda) bathed bedeck all of Yerushalaim – Jerusalem. If only our eyes could dwell upon the fullness before us and not the missing fish! 

Alas, we humans are wired for want. But we also have deep wellsprings of gratitude within us. As corona recedes, we can start to uncover their nourishing bounty.

Vera Schwarcz is professor emerita of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University. A longtime resident of West Hartford, she made aliya in 2018. She is currently senior research fellow at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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Main Photo: Jacaranda tree in Israel.

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