After reading from the Torah, it is customary to discuss life lessons that can be gleaned from that week's portion. I read a small portion of this at my service; with 11 b'nai mitzvah honorees, we had to keep things brief. I'm not sure if it's appropriate, but I had the congregants ROFL (or at least LOL) with my dvar as I left out the recap of the Torah passage (as we were asked to do to keep it short) and went straight to talking about my kids. Clearly, I was speaking a universal truth.This is what I read from the Torah; three lines from the larger portion.
May 22, 2010
My parsha, Numbers Chapters 8 – 12, details a time of growing discontent as the Israelites wandered the desert wilderness. Notable items in this parsha include:
• establishing the Levites as a priestly class
• the Divine as an earthly presence in the form of a cloud or pillar of fire that leading the group through the wilderness
• an alternate Passover observance for those who are traveling or impure
• Israelites pining for a past they never had
• sibling rivalry and perhaps a bit of gossip between Miriam, Aaron and Moses
It is the crowd of malcontents, those clinging to a past they never had that intrigues me most. Despite abundant manna from heaven, a band of asfuf, or disreputable people, whine about their lack of meat. They long for meat, fish and cucumbers—foods they recall eating freely back in Egypt. Interestingly, they do not seem to recall their lack of freedom during their life in bondage.
Dayenu, indeed. (Though to be fair, the song had yet to be written.)
This band of asfuf whine and complain to Moses, who in turn whines and complains to God.
Moses was distraught; God was angry.
Moses cried to God, “Did I conceive all this people? Did I bear them?... I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would rather deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”1
The drama continues as God advises Moses to gather 70 elders and appears to tell them he will indeed deliver meat to the Israelites.
“Purify yourselves for tomorrow, you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before the Lord saying, ‘if only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ The Lord will give you meat and you shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected the Lord who is among you whining before Him saying, ‘Oh why did we ever leave Egypt?’”
God provided as promised. A wind swept up and brought quail from the sea. Quail all around the camp, quail piled two or three feet high. It is said that “even he who gathered the least had ten homers” or bushels.
Yet, “when the meat was still between their teeth nor yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague.” The meat-eaters died.
The wandering Israelites were a people in transition. They were no longer the slaves they once were with no control over their lives, but not yet ready to live as a free, independent people.
Kind of like the my children, though to be clear, last time I checked putting their dirty dishes in the sink after a meal or snack, unloading the dishwasher a few times a week, putting away clean laundry, and changing bed linens did not constitute child slavery. And yet, they kvetch.
Unlike Moses, who, when faced with whining Israelites, distanced himself from the angry lot, I did conceive and bear these children. They are mine and though they often make my heart sing and my soul nearly burst with pride, I could do without the whining. Oh, the incessant whining.
Like the Israelites, my children on the brink of adolescence are longing for control of their lives, yet not ready to take on the responsibilities of adult life. And like God, I sometimes get frustrated and make angry threats. It should be noted, that I sometimes fail to follow through, which in the context of this parsha is maybe a Good Thing.
Still, perhaps we mortals can take comfort in the fact that even God’s patience runs dry when the level of pleading and whining goes beyond.
In the early part of the parsha, God appears and guides the Israelites in the form of a cloud or pillar of fire, but as the chapters continue, a system is put in place so that the Israelites can communicate when it is time to move ahead and when it is time to retreat.
This is another lesson for parents as our children navigate the wilds of adolescence. We go from leading them directly, to instructing them on how to care for themselves, their possessions, and the world. The transition from dependence to independence can be a trying time for all involved. This portion sheds light on growing pains and reassures us that these pains, whether physical or psychological, are to be expected during a time of change and uncertainty.
Those us who read ahead know what a great reward is in store as the Israelites mature and become a great people. Parents of teens can only pray for a similar outcome.
Speaking of great outcomes, becoming a bat mitzvah- leading a service and reading from the Torah has been on my to-do list since college. As a newlywed in my mind-twenties, I added it to my list of thing to do before I had children. Those tweens I mentioned above, the ones I conceived and bore? The oldest is now 12, so clearly I procrastinated a bit, but at least I made it to the bimah before my children.
As a child, I was given free rein to opt out of Hebrew School, which I gleefully did in favor of activities like Girl Scouts and horseback riding lessons. As a junior high student, my parents gave me the option of hard and fast Hebrew tutoring, so I could have a bat mitzvah like my girlfriends, but even as a child, that felt like cheating.
As a college student and later, a “real” adult, I participated in both formal and informal Jewish educational opportunities, and knew that I had an option to become a bat mitzvah through tutoring, but that never felt like the right choice.
I was delighted that our synagogue offered this opportunity- the chance to study, learn and grow, from a group, as a group. This small new community has helped connect me to the large congregational community. My classmates and I differ in ages, life experiences and life stages- a fact that has made the b'nai mitzvah class more enriching and more meaningful.
I am delighted to be able to celebrate this day with my extended family and friends. Thanks to my parents for their support and a special thank you to my husband for encouraging me to join the b'nai mitzvah class and supporting me through it. Thanks to my wonderful boys for helping me practice for my big day. Next year at this time my oldest will be the one chanting Torah. Thank you also to [my teachers] for preparing me for this special day. I also want to thank the congregation for hosting the class and providing us support throughout our course of study.
footnote: 1 (1988) Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. The Jewish Publication Society. New York.