Cultivated Cravings

Not letting desires frustrate us.

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Desire & Consumerism

If we understand this and acknowledge our dependence on God, we can expect to be rewarded with the produce affected by natural forces under the control of Heaven. We are promised as much in the Torah (Leviticus 26:3-13).

But if we imagine that we can separate natural forces from each other or from their Divine source, whether through polytheism, idolatry, or radical materialism that denies God, then we are doomed to failure.

This was the offense of those who died at Kivrot haTaavah. To crave meat was not a sin. To indulge gluttonously without acknowledging the Creator or the limits of Creation was an expression of contempt for all that God had done for them. Such behavior leads to disaster.

Indeed, Rashi points out that the demand for meat and other food was a mere pretext to complain (Numbers 11:4). To complain about what? Rashi's comment seems to reflect the Talmud's suggestion (Yoma 75a) that the complaint was not about substance, but an expression of frustration at living under the mitzvot.

The reflexive language--hit'avu ta'ava--"they cultivated a craving"--evokes a group that dwells on its own frustrated desires. A generalized dissatisfaction, expressed in endless demands for more material things that do not bring happiness, can never be satisfied.

Rashi calls this a pretext for complaint. Today, we would call it insatiable consumerism. We are told that the Israelites collected enormous quantities of quail that they would never be able to consume, decimating the birds.

A desire that can never be satisfied consumes resources to the point of destructiveness. An insatiable consumer can become a public danger who must be restrained until he or she can be reeducated to an attitude of gratitude and humility.

Rashi explains further (Numbers 11:20) that the deaths at Kivrot haTaavah continued until the quail had been provided for a month, demonstrating that this miraculous provision was indeed possible, though it did not satisfy the complainers.

Who is Prosperous?

What is the alternative to seeking solace in destructive unbridled consumption? Commenting on the instructions for the lighting of the menorah at the beginning of our parashah, Rashi explains that its lamps did not face out to maximize the illumination (Numbers 8:2). Rather, they were turned inward toward the menorah's center, as if to indicate that we should cultivate an inward light, not an attitude of entitlement or superiority.

This is the key to avoiding Kivrot haTaavah. Crass, self-seeking consumerism and over-consumption lead us and all around us to a bad end. The menorah and the shulhan remind us that Heaven provides all things, good and ill. Understanding that everything in our world proceeds from God, both when it serves our desires and when it does not, leads us to appreciate and express gratitude for what we have.

Humble and prudent stewardship of our limited resources will ensure a future for ourselves and our descendants. As the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot reminds us,"Who is prosperous? One who is content with his portion (Avot 4:1)."

Suggested Action Items:

1. Decide what you really care about, and avoid spending resources on things you don't really want or need. For example, you may be tempted to buy a new cell phone or the latest computer when the one you have works just fine. See if you can keep yours for another six months or a year to save money and reduce the resources used on a new one.

2.Are you planning a move? In addition to proximity to synagogues, school, work, and shopping, think about access to efficient public transportation.

3. Instead of seeking happiness through purchasing, make a list of pleasures you can take in daily life. Authentic pleasures are satisfying and enduring. Give these to yourself as presents.

4. Save money and produce less trash by planning your buying in advance and avoiding single-serving packages. For example: Bring your lunch to work. Include a treat as a reward for yourself. Remember to pack sandwiches and snacks for long car trips to avoid buying non-nutritious, over-priced snacks at highway convenience stores.

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Jon Greenberg

Jon Greenberg, Ph.D. received his Bachelor's degree with honors in biology from Brown University and his Master's and Doctorate in agronomy from Cornell University. Dr. Greenberg was a Senior Editor of science textbooks at Prentice Hall Publishing Co. and an assistant professor at the School of Education at Indiana University. He teaches science at Yeshivas Ohr Yosef.