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Shelach Lecha Spies and Spiritual Shortage

Beha’alotcha, Shelach, Korach, Chukas, Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot-Massei contain incident after incident in which the pioneers of our nation acted in a manner unbecoming of the “Dor Deah” [“Generation of Knowledge”] which they were supposed to represent.

In these parshiyot, the Torah describes sin following sin, complaint following complaint, rebellion following rebellion.

A Chasidic Rebbe, in discussing these incidents: once told his students this parable: There was once a king and queen who had two children, twin boys, heirs to the throne. The two boys grew up together and were cherished by their parents. On the day of the twins’ fourth birthday, a group of kidnappers broke into the palace and abducted one of the princes. The twin that was kidnapped somehow managed to escape those who seized him but never found his way back to the palace and was seemingly forever lost. Still a young boy, he was adopted by a family of beggars. Eventually he forgot that he was really a prince. He grew up destined to be a very good beggar.

 

On the other side of the kingdom, in the palace, the beggar’s twin brother became king upon the death of his father. Alas he became dangerously ill, and he too ultimately died. Just before his passing, the king reminded his staff that there was another heir to the throne: his twin brother. Soldiers were ordered to search the entire kingdom for the twin brother. After months of searching, they finally found the identical twin, the next in line to the throne. When they informed the beggar that he was, in fact, royalty and would live out the rest of his life as king, in a palace and in luxury, he began to weep. Upon being asked why he was so unnerved, he replied, ‘All my life I only had to beg for myself and my family, but now that I’m the king, I have to beg for an entire kingdom!’

In this parable the beggar represents the Children of Israel. Having been freed from a life of scrounging the beggar still can’t conceive of anything but begging. He doesn’t understand that he is royalty. So too, the Israelites, born into slavery, couldn’t see themselves as anything but slaves. Slavery was all they knew.

Now, a year after their redemption, the tribes try to adjust to a life of freedom. But just as the beggar is upset because of his inaccurate perception of his potential, so too the Children of Israel are distressed and cry out.

Their slave mentality causes them to crave the same things they had in Egypt, even at the cost of violence and hardship. They still perceive themselves as slaves and so we read:

.The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and the Israelites, moreover, wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4–6)

What is most strange is the specific demand for meat. The Israelites already had numerous flocks and herds. Certainly if they wanted meat, they had plenty. So what were they really asking for? Verse 5 gives us more of a clue. The Israelites recall that the fish that they had eaten in Egypt was “free” (chinam). Rashi asks, ‘What does it mean, ‘free’”? Are we to believe that Egyptians, who wouldn’t even give them straw to make bricks, would really give them free fish? Rashi explains that “free” really alludes to the mitzvot. The Israelite slaves had no obligation to perform the commandments while they were in servitude and therefore all they ate and all they did in Egypt was without the condition of performing the mitzvot.

When the Torah says, “Moshe heard the people weeping in their family groups “(ibid. 11:10), Rashi says they were weeping because the Torah forbids certain family relationships and marriages .They were dissatisfied with their obligation to perform the commandments, but that is not what they said. They attributed their dissatisfaction to the manna. In essence, the Israelites aren’t really complaining about their current lack of delicacies. They are grumbling about their newfound freedom and complaining about all the responsibilities that go with it. The real cause of their grievances revealed in 11:6 where we hear the desperation of the Israelites’ cry. They say, “Now our gullets are shriveled.” The Hebrew term is nafsheinu y’veishah, literally ‘our souls are dry.’ How did they go from complaining about food in one verse to exclaiming that their souls are dry in the next? It seems like a big leap from the material to the spiritual. However that is exactly the point: the complaints don’t have their source in material things. Rather, the complaints stem from the fact that the Israelites can’t perceive the spiritual source of their experience. Instead of marveling at manna and the mitzvot, they complain and crave cucumbers. They were in the words of our Sages Ketanei Emunah, short on spirituality and faith .Indeed, the Israelites themselves may not have been aware of the real cause of their unhappiness. In the same way as someone may suffer from an   iron or vitamin deficiency and be unaware of their shortage so too Bnei Yisrael who suffered from spiritual deficiency were unaware of the cause The former results in physical symptoms, whereas the latter results in chronic discontent and those who are unaware of their spiritual shortage attribute their discontent to various other causes.

 

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