Parashat B'ha'alotkha

Leaving Childhood Behind

The specific complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness illustrate their inability to develop mature, adult relationships.

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The thrust of the story seems to be, I think, that the Jewish people behaved in a way that was extremely child-like, and Moshe's response is appropriate to that. The crying, the fact that they missed the food they ate in Egypt, not because it was very good but, rather, because it's what they were used to, Moshe's infantilizing the people in his speech to God, all seem to indicate that this is not about a real need for real food, but rather is about a tendency on the part of the Jews to regress to a simpler, child-like reality, symbolized by the foods of that childhood.

I'm reminded of an episode of "Friends" that I accidentally watched in which Monica was supposed to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone, and each person, childishly, wanted the mashed potatoes exactly the way their mother cooked it; with lumps, without lumps, creamy, crunchy, etc. One is also reminded of Proust's madeleine, and how his childhood, and subsequently his entire life, was conjured up for him by the sensory memories he experienced when he dipped it into his cup of tea.

This desire for the physical, sensory, and tactile experiences of our childhood is not uncommon--I feel the same way about Kedem grape juice and Ring Dings, which really are awful. In our story, however, this is apparently part of a much more problematic pathology.

The Rabbis explain this pathology in the following way: When the people complain, the Torah tells us that "Moshe heard the nation crying, by their families, each person at the opening of his tent." The simple meaning is that they gathered in family groups in order to protest the lack of meat. The Rabbis, however, claim that "by their families" actually means they were crying ABOUT a family matter, namely, the fact that now, after having been given the Torah, the Jews were forbidden to engage in incestuous sexual relations, and this is what they were crying about!

Where did the Rabbis get this weird idea? Why do they insult the Jews of the pre-Torah period by maintaining that they were not only guilty of incest, but were in fact so into it that they all got together and cried when those relationships were forbidden to them?

It would seem that we are being taught a profound lesson about infantilism, growing up, and sexuality. The Torah's paradigm of mature, adult sexuality is expressed in Genesis, at the creation of Adam and Eve. Adam is lonely without a mate, unsatisfied. God creates woman, Adam likes her, a lot, and the Torah says: "Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh."

Of course, Adam had no father and mother to leave, and yet the Torah insists that an intimate relationship between a man and a woman is predicated upon a leaving behind of the intimate relationships of one's childhood, and the establishing of a new relationship, the forging of a new reality. Growing up, we are being told, is about leaving behind the sensations and intimacies of childhood, and creating a new set of sensations and intimacies.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.