Summertime, and I’m feelin’ lazy…
“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.”
From 2010, on the Israelites’ nostalgia for Egypt:
Part of their nostalgia centers on food that they no longer have: meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic, i.e., flesh, fiber, and flavor. Foods I get nostalgic for are generally connected with a particular time or situation, like my grandmother’s Friday night pies (my sisters say the lemon meringue was the best they’ve ever had, but I couldn’t appreciate it because I didn’t like the feel of the meringue in my mouth), my Sunday lunch fried liverwurst sandwiches (with lettuce and tomato, on white toast), the coconut pineapple cake for my birthday, and strawberry shortcake for my siblings’ birthdays. Sometimes food that’s incidental is what I remember most strongly about books and movies (food and deaths) – the three-layer slice of cake in “Pollyanna,” the potatoes baked in the ground in The Secret Garden, the penny candies in All of a Kind Family. But the memories of Egypt are not linked to anything specific; they just, bluntly, reveal a physical yen for food with more to it than manna. Nothing spiritual at all.
My older son loves school, but his younger brother absolutely hates it. One weekend he cried and fretted and tried every excuse not to go back on Monday. Sunday morning on the way home from church, the crying and whining built to a crescendo. At the end of my rope, I finally stopped the car and explained, “Honey, it’s a law. If you don’t go to school, they’ll put Mommy in jail.”
He looked at me, thought a moment, then asked, “How long would you have to stay?”
A Morris Dog Joke (oldie but goodie)
Morris gets a new dog and can’t wait to show him off to his neighbor. So when the neighbor comes over, the guy calls the dog into the house, bragging about how smart he is. The dog quickly comes running and stands looking up at his master, tail wagging furiously, mouth open, tongue hanging out, eyes bright with anticipation.
Morris points to the newspaper on the couch and commands, “FETCH!”
Immediately, the dog climbs onto the couch and sits down. His tail wagging stops and the doggie-smile disappears. Looking balefully up at his master, he says in a whiny voice……….”You think this is easy wagging my tail all the time? Oy! It hurts from so much wagging! And you think that designer dog food you’re feeding me is good? You try it. It’s dreck! Too salty! And what do you care? You just push me out the door to take a squirt twice a day. I can’t even remember the last time you took me out for a good walk,”
The neighbor is amazed. “What the hell is that? Your dog is sitting there talking!!”
“Oh, I know”, explains the dog owner, “He’s young, and I’m still training him. He thought I said KVETCH!
A Woman Was Being Questioned In A Court Trial Involving Slander
A woman was being questioned in a court trial involving slander. “Please repeat the slanderous statements you heard, exactly as you heard them,” instructed the lawyer. The witness hesitated. “But they are unfit for any respectable person to hear,” she protested. “Then,” said the attorney, “just whisper them to the judge.”
What did the underweight onion say to the garlic?
No more light bulb jokes!