Jewish Journal

Baseless discontent

by Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick

Posted on Jun. 4, 2014 at 10:17 am

I like to have a derash in my pocket with an addiction/recovery theme when I visit Jewish inmates in the county jail, and I’ve got to tell you, Beha’alotecha is the perfect one to do this. 

Found in the book of Numbers, this parasha features a memorable scene in which the “riffraff” of the wandering Israelites are overcome by a “gluttonous craving.” They are perfectly well fed on manna, a food that, we are told in midrash, has any flavor you want and is filling and abundant. Yet they are clamoring for the meat, fish, melons, cucumbers, garlic, leeks and onions that they say they got “for free” in Egypt. They add that what they have now are empty stomachs and “nothing at all, but this manna to look at.” 

Things were better before they left Egypt, they are suggesting. Moses and God are appalled. 

Sometimes it’s hard to identify the metaphoric application of a text, but in this case, all you have to ask is: What’s up with these people? And does this happen to me? 

First off, what’s with the lies? Their recollection of Egypt is distorted. The people did not have plentiful, free delicacies — they were slaves. They didn’t even have enough straw to make bricks. Plus, their current situation doesn’t seem to warrant negativity. The manna isn’t just to look at, they eat it aplenty, with two days’ worth on Fridays! But the riffraff (also translated as the “murmurers”) are fomenting baseless discontent, and the general population is taking it to heart.

What possible reason could there be for this? 

As human beings, we conceive thoughts all the time, and some of them are nonproductive. We want to trust our minds, but in fact, they are quite capable of feeding us ideas that are dishonest, cruel and self-aggrandizing, usually based on underlying fears and anxieties. It’s our job to pre-empt these thoughts and reject them before they become a way of life. 

When I visit the jail, I meet powerful examples of people who have fallen victim to bad mental hygiene. They not only let unhelpful thoughts take root; they cultivated them into a dense forest. 

Some examples, starting with gluttony: A woman told me she had a lovely life, a home, a decent-paying job and a husband who loves her, but she chose to steal money. She took “as much as she wanted,” she said. She saw her situation as inadequate and let her thoughts guide her to an unethical way to acquire even more, until her dual life collapsed. 

Mental illness: A man told a fellow chaplain that he had killed his own mother because voices in his head said she was a witch, and he needed to keep her from killing children. “Save the children!” the voice told him all night long. One day, he obeyed. 

Addiction: People tell me they thought they had put their drug of choice behind them and returned to a productive life that was working for them. Yet, to their utter dismay, they let the pull of drugs and “bad company” lure them back to their high — and to jail. When intoxicated, they become even less able to manage their minds. No wonder the Anonymous programs don’t permit the addict even one drop of their poison of choice, and provide a sponsor with whom to talk. 

So what is our parasha teaching us about how to address our “gluttonous cravings”? 

1. Self review. Commit yourself to a simple Mussar practice. I learned one from my seminary professor Rabbi Mordecai Finley. Consider the messages running through your mind, and ask yourself three questions: Is this true? Is it moral? And is it helpful? 

If what you are hearing is a reasonable need, such as safety or respect, find a way to satisfy it without the sin of anger or acting out. If there is currently no way to resolve it, calm yourself until resolution can be found. If the thought is unreasonable and inappropriate, dismiss it out of hand. 

2. External control. If you can’t dismiss unhelpful thoughts of your own accord, it is time to escalate to the next level: Tell someone, and let them help you. Let incarceration, programs, family and community provide the structure you need, at least until you can manage things on your own. 

3. Higher power. Admit your powerlessness to bad ideas and set yourself on a path of clarity through spiritual practices such as prayer, study and mitzvot. 

In the parasha, the Israelites let their anxieties get the better of them. God becomes enraged and punishes them severely, as if to say, “You just witnessed the Exodus from slavery. Don’t you have the strength to trust me yet?”

A stint in jail can be both the punishment you earn, and the reward of structure you need to turn your life around. It all comes down to doing the work. 

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