Parashat Behaalotecha

תנו רבנן: (דברים ה, כז) מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם אמר להן משה לישראל כפויי טובה בני כפויי טובה בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם היה להם לומר תן אתה כפויי טובה דכתיב (במדבר כא, ה) ונפשנו קצה בלחם הקלוקל בני כפויי טובה דכתיב (בראשית ג, יב) האשה אשר נתתה עמדי היא נתנה לי מן העץ ואוכל

Our sages taught: “Who would give that their heart would be this for them [to revere me and follow my commandments always] (Deuteronomy 5:26)” Moshe said to Israel “Ingrates, children of ingrates. At the time the Holy One told Israel this, they should have said “You can give us one!” Ingrates, as it says “Our souls are disgusted with this insubstantial bread.” Children of ingrates, as it is said “This wife that you gave me, she took from the tree and ate.” — Avoda Zara 5b

Parashat Bahalotcha is a painful parasha to read. Israel achieves the highest heights in the Desert. They just inaugurated the Mishkan with great rejoicing and ceremony and prepared their camp to move from Sinai towards Israel. Now just before they go, they offer their first Passover sacrifice at the new Mishkan. Their excitement for spirituality is so high that, unprecedentedly, Israel ask for and are given a new commandment: those people, who through no fault of their own, cannot participate in the Passover sacrifice can, instead of being exempt from the command entirely, offer the Passover a month later. We would expect that having achieved that enviable burning passion for the commandments, Israel should now make its swift triumphant journey into the Promised Land. But disaster strikes. Israel commits sin after sin in almost silly sounding ways. They complain about the journey and about the very manna that Gd gifted them with.  What happened? How did Israel drop from such a high to such a low?

In Shekalim (2b) Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi reports the astonishment of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince that in every way Israel did good, they managed also to do bad, but with redoubled zeal. They gave contributions to the Mishkan, and they gave to the Golden Calf. Moshe led the people in song at the Sea, and the people used their same voices to cry about it was better to die in the Desert than to fulfill the destiny they had sung about. It defies understanding.

Perhaps some understanding of the people’s failing can be derived from a Gemara in Avoda Zara (5a). Speaking forty years later, Moshe complains the children of Israel are “Ingrates, children of ingrates.” They are ingrates for complaining about the manna that Gd gave them*. And they are the children of ingrates, for the very first human created was given a gift, and he almost immediately complained about it. 

Moshe’s complaint is very easy to understand, but the occasion the Gemara says sparked it is not. Moshe is reminiscing about the Ten Commandments. He mentions that after hearing them, the people were terrified and were unable to stand hearing more from Gd directly. Rather, they desired to learn from Moshe and pledged to obey whatever they heard. To this, Gd responded “Who would give that their heart would be this for them to revere me and follow my commandments always,” and the people apparently did not respond with anything further. “Ingrates,”

Moshe says, why don’t you say “Gd, you have the power to give anything you want. Why don’t you give us such a heart?” But the people never said this, and they never got such a heart. Instead they bounced around between spiritual highs and lows. Certainly, the people were ingrates, and certainly they should have asked for a blessing they desperately needed, but what is the connection between not asking and being ungrateful? How can you be ungrateful for what you never think to ask for?

Tosaphot says they didn’t want to ask for anything, because they would then be beholden to Gd for it, but this seems forced. The Ben Ish Hai suggests that when Gd praised them for the qualities they currently possessed, they should have considered how they got to the state they were in. Did they perfect their hearts they had at that moment all by themselves? No! Gd helped them get to where they were, and He could help them further. Alas, because they wrote Him out of the equation, they never thought to ask for further help.

It seems to me that the Generation in the Wilderness were given several experiences, such as the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai that were explicitly stated to be for the purpose of strengthening their belief in Gd and their resolve to do commandments on a permanent basis. Israel never really took full advantage of these experiences. They eagerly served Gd in the moment, but never thought about how to develop a long-term relationship after these experiences passed. Once they left Sinai, they felt lost and began to complain. In this sense, they were ingrates, because Gd gave them a lot, yet they never used it to develop their potential. If Israel had considered all that Gd had done for them and all that Gd could do, they would have understood that He could keep them from sin just as He had brought them close to Him in the first place.

From the first humans on to us, it’s always easier to feel troubled than it is to feel grateful. People often don’t reflect on all the positive experiences that made them who they are. If we have trouble thinking about all that Gd has done us and how to ask for further help, then we should take extra care when saying Modim. By considering all that got us to where we are, we will have more motivation in our future endeavors.

*This is actually a later complaint about the manna, not the one in our parasha, but it is easy to see that Israel is equally ungrateful for complaining about the manna the first time.