This morning, after minyan (yes, we got one), the rabbi urged us to go to services tomorrow, noting happily that the reading was now back into a narrative mode. Years ago, another rabbi offered a different view, that the book of Numbers is a real downer. This week’s portion illustrates the validity of both opinions.
As we begin reading, the Israelites are making their final preparations before leaving the wilderness of Sinai, 13 months after the Exodus. Aaron lights the lamps of the 7-branched candelabrum; the Levites are formally designated and ritually purified; a Pesach Sheni (second Passover) is set a month after the “real” one to deal with those could not eat the Passover sacrifice on time because of ritual impurity; two silver trumpets are made for summoning the people; and a cloud covers the Tabernacle by day and fire by night. Finally, the four tribal divisions, identified by their banners, set forth in a great procession. Verses 10:35-36, to be proclaimed in triumph whenever the Ark was to set out, are now part of our liturgy, appropriately sung before our own Torah processions.
That was the happy part of the portion.
We now are called back from wonder to the mundanities of life in the wilderness. The people complain. And whine. And kvetch. The general pattern: the people gripe to Moses, Moses asks the Lord for help, and the Lord (figuratively) smacks the people (usually plague or fire), followed by a usually successful plea from Moses for the Lord to back off. Sometimes, we don’t even know what the complaint was (11:1-3), but usually there’s reasonable specificity. For example, people say they are tired of manna and want the foods of their Egyptian diet: cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic, fish, and, especially, meat. Perhaps some of this is nostalgia for comfort food (Garlic? Onions?). Maimonides views it as a rebellion against the Lord’s authority and questioning Divine omnipotence. Rabban Gamliel, about a millennium earlier, looked at the demand for meat as a pretext: “You will never satisfy them…If you give them beef, they will say they asked for mutton. If you will give them mutton, they will say they asked for beef, for fish, for grasshoppers.” (cited by Rashi, as presented by Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, pp. 110-111) The people are grasping for – something, but they don’t know what. . Anyhow, they are “rewarded” with a huge flock of easy-to-catch quail, followed by a plague (food poisoning?).
Moses designates 70 elders to share his burden, and they prophesy, even the two who remain back in the camp. But the focus remains on Moses. And not even his elder siblings are immune to the persistent bad humor; Aaron and Miriam slander him and appear to be jealous of his special relationship with the Lord. After the Lord reminds the siblings that Moses has this special relationship because he’s special, Miriam, as the eldest and apparent instigator of the slander, is punished with tzara’at (a skin disease that is not leprosy) and holds up the march for a week while she’s kept outside the camp. Moses, a humble man, simply prays for his big sister to be healed. And the journey continues.
Why are the Israelites so cranky? It’s not simply a childish “are we there yet?” moment. Some commentators blame the “mixed multitude” of non-Israelites that accompanied the slaves out of Egypt. One answer I heard last week (thanks, Faith): they no longer have a sense of purpose. Everything is given to them; they don’t have to gather or grow their food, and even their clothes don’t wear out. As long as they were building the Tabernacle, they had purpose, and worth, as a community and as individuals. But now? They are wandering in the wilderness, both literally and emotionally. Their nerves are increasingly frayed, and this will lead to a series of disasters in the coming weeks.
JUST BEFORE THE PROCESSION BEGAN…
By: Lisa Woelk
Just before the procession began at a wedding my in-laws attended, a young child sitting near them asked his mother, “When is the persecution going to start?”
A man walks into a store and heads straight for the counter. He orders a Polish sausage sandwich from the old lady behind the counter. However she just stands there and says, “You must be a really dumb Pollack.”
“I can’t believe you’ve made that ethnic remark! If a Jew comes in here and orders a kosher sandwich, will you call him a dumb Jew?”
“Of course,” says the cranky old lady.
“If an Italian walks in here and orders an Italian meatball sandwich, are you going to call him a dumb Italian?”
“Right on, buster.” says the old lady.
“Then why would you make such a mean remark?” asks the man.
“Because,” says the old lady as she leans forward, “this is a FLOWER SHOP, you moron!”
Monsters Eat Whiny Children [Hardcover]
This cautionary tale about whiny children being eaten by monsters is upended when the monsters cannot decide how best to prepare their meal. A whiny child salad doesn’t work because there’s paprika in the dressing. A whiny child cake won’t do because the flour spills all over the floor. Whiny child burgers are out of the question because the grill is too hard to light. When the persnickety monsters finally decide that whiny child cucumber sandwiches are the perfect solution, their whiny children have escaped. At least the children have learned their lesson…for now.
Don’t Turn Off the Light!
A group of mental patients was engaged in some therapeutic work in the basement of the institution.
When the superintendent came round, he saw that they were all busy at the carpentry benches and lathes, except for one inmate who was hanging by his ankles from the ceiling.
`What’s going on here?’ he asked.
`Don’t take any notice of him,’ said one of the inmates.
`He thinks he’s a light-bulb.’
`Well,’ said the superintendent with a smile, `I’ll soon take care of that. I’ll just turn him off!’
He stepped over to the wall switch and one of the other patients shouted,
`Hey, wait a minute! How do you expect us to work in the dark?’
Quotes About Slander
“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody come sit next to me.”
― Alice Roosevelt Longworth
“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
― Margaret Thatcher
“Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.”
― William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
February 16, 2006
A Biologist, a Physicist, and an Engineer Walk Into a Bar… [excerpts]
A biologist, a physicist, and an engineer go quail hunting. Suddenly, a single quail gets flushed from the undergrowth.
The biologist, being very familiar with natural quail behavior and quail flight patterns, takes careful aim… BLAM! He just misses, a little to the right.
At almost exactly the same time, the physicist quickly calculates the distance, the velocity of the bullet, the velocity of the quail, corrects for wind and air resistance… BLAM! He just misses, a little to the left.
The engineer starts jumping up and down excitedly. “We got him! We got him!”
But wait! There’s a sequel to this joke!
Miracle of miracles, our hunting party succeeds in downing a quail. They return to the campsite, where their philosopher friend has been waiting for them. Triumphant, they show the philosopher the quail.
The philosopher looks up from his book. “Hmmm, well, how do you know it’s a quail?”
The biologist is taken aback. “Well, just look at the morphology,” he says. “It’s got quail feathers, a quail beak, quail wings…”
The physicist doesn’t quite know what to say either. “I guess we could take a DNA sample from the bird and run it to the lab…?”
The engineer just shrugs. “We went hunting for quail. Therefore, it’s a quail.”
[Some of my best friends are engineers…IGP]
Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson.
You find the present tense and the past perfect.