Baha'alotcha 5766 — keeping your priorities straight

Our ancestors were a bunch of whiners.

God did all these amazing things for them – bringing them out slavery in Egypt, feeding them with manna that fell from the sky.  God gave them His most precious gift, the Torah.  God was with them all the way.

And what do they do?

They kvetch.  In this week’s Torah portion, Baha’alotcha, we are told “and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.” I can picture the crowds now, stamping their feet, crying out in unison “we want meat!  We want meat!  Give us tasty meat to eat!” Moses is so disgusted with the people that he brings his kvetch to God: “Why have you afflicted Your servant?  Why do you lay the burden of this ungrateful lot on me?!  Am I their father?  Am I their mother?  Where the heck am I supposed to get meat to feed all these people who cry out “give us meat that we can eat!”

Happiness for this generation seems to have been a very fleeting and elusive phenomenon.

When they were in Egypt they hated being slaves.  Their burden was so great, they cried out to God to save them.  From their later complaints, we can surmise that materially life was not so bad – they had housing, they had good food – meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic.  Yet they were not happy.  They were being forced to work hard.  Their souls longed to be free of Pharaoh and slavery.

So they cry out to God.  God hears their cry, he sends Moses and Aaron to take on Pharaoh.  Passover night comes and the people have to make a choice: stay in Egypt with its material plenty – with the roof over your head, the plentiful food – the “fleshpots” of Egypt– or leave all that behind and go out into the desert.  Abandon your homes, abandon everything, but be free.

The people who left decided their souls were more important than their bodily appetites.  They didn’t hesitate.  It came time to choose between staying in Egypt with material comfort, or pursuing their spiritual dream of living free, they decided to go for freedom.

The journey to freedom was scary.  All those plagues!  The death of the first born.  Fleeing Egypt with the soldiers following close behind.  They didn’t feel at ease until after they managed to cross the Red Sea and they could see the Egyptians drowning.  Hooray!  Free at last!  And for that one brief shining moment, the people were happy.  They didn’t care that they were now in a desert with no roof over their heads, that they didn’t know what they were going to eat.  They were giddy with excitement at being free and being safe and they sang the Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea.

At that moment they reached their spiritual high.  They had no concern about their material situation whatsoever.  They were free, and that was what was important. By the time a few years had passed however, they forgot about the oppression of Egypt—and they remembered the good food in Egypt.  They remembered the more comfortable lifestyle they gave up.  They forgot about the spiritual issues which had motivated them to leave Egypt– all they became aware of was a relative lack.

And it was a relative lack, not a real lack.  God was sustaining them in the desert.  Feeding them with manna from heaven, which by all accounts was delicious and nutritious.  OK, it wasn’t a lot of variety—but it was healthy, tasty, and they didn’t have to do anything but go for a stroll to harvest the stuff.  But when they thought back to the varied diet they had in Egypt, they got depressed and felt they were lacking something.

This story about the Jews who had plenty complaining about what they don’t have is 3,000 years old.  And yet human nature does not seem to have changed much.  This particular form of spiritual malaise is playing itself out again in Israel.  Only this time instead of former slaves who are complaining, it’s relatively well off immigrants from America and other Western countries who are doing the kvetching.

A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz cites some very interesting statistics. The article says “Nearly 60 percent of people who immigrated to Israel from Western countries in the past 16 years are dissatisfied with their current economic situation, despite the fact that they are the most economically successful and best-educated immigrant group.”

The olim (immigrants) from the West had the lowest unemployment rates of any group in Israeli society: lower than immigrants from the FSU or Africa, lower even than native Israelis of European background.  Yet despite their greater success, they report more dissastisfaction with their economic situation than anyone else, including native-born Jewish Israelis of all backgrounds.

So what happened? People from the West who make aliyah are not doing it for economic reasons—financially life is much easier in America or Canada or Englad or France.  People from the West who make aliyah are doing it for spiritual reasons—they want to help build the Jewish state, they want to live in a place that feels like home, they are excited by the idea of a place where Jews get to run things.  Just as our ancestors left Egypt for spiritual reasons – to be free, to be able to serve God.

But the same thing that happened to the ancient Israelites in this week’s parsha – memories of life in the “old country” coming to haunt the current reality, coming to make the current reality feel inadequate – has happened to these Western olim.

Both examples – the ancient Israelites complaining all the while God was feeding them with manna from heaven, and the modern Western-immigrant Israelites complaining while they are being well fed – while being the most successful immigrant group in Israel – serve to prove the teaching that happiness is not a state of the pocketbook.  It’s a state of mind.

As the rabbi Ben Zoma said nearly 2,000 years ago, איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו, “Who is wealthy?  The one who is happy with his portion (Pirkei Avot 4:1).”  Rambam says that wealth is among the loftiest of traits – and he understands “wealth” as meaning “contentment,” for we say the one who is content with his lot is wealthy.  The person who is content with whatever he has at that time, and he is NOT troubled by what he does NOT have, that is a person who is wealthy (Shmonah Perakim, chapter 7).

So all those Westerners who made aliyah and are economically dissatisfied, is it because they never got around to studying Pirkei Avot and the wisdom of Ben Zoma? 

Most of them are probably quite familiar with this teaching.  But it’s very hard to implement.  It’s almost impossible to avoid looking back at one’s own past and comparing one’s present.  While I’m not unhappy with my economic lot, I admit there are times I feel a bit nostalgic about the days when I owned an airplane and took vacations in exotic places.  You can’t just shut off feelings by reading an aphorism, no matter how profound.

There was a discussion about the Haaretz article on an email list for people who are making or who have made aliyah from the English-speaking world.  One of the people posted an explanation for the dissatisfaction:  When I made aliyah I "understood" perfectly that I was leaving behind all six of my siblings with whom I’m very close, my parents, all my aunts and uncles to whom I feel very close, all of my nieces and nephews including the ones who would be born after my aliyah whom I would never know at all, and most of my cousins. There was nothing about that which I didn’t "understand". Living with it is proving to be excruciatingly painful.”

When the immigrants from the West made aliyah they also knew they would take a cut in standard of living…yet “living with it” is different than thinking about it.

As further proof that it’s not how much you have that sets one’s outlook, the most optimistic group of Israeli immigrants are the ones who have the least – the Jews from Ethiopia.  Even though they are in the worst economic shape of the different immigrant groups in Israel, it is still an improvement over where they came from.  Hence they are happy and optimistic.

There is, however, an important difference between the generation that left Egypt and the generation—well, the small subset of the generation—that left America.  The generation that left Egypt was not only materially dissatisfied: they were dissatisfied with the whole process. They regretted ever having left Egypt.  They not only complained about the food, they said they would have been better off staying in Egypt.

The Midrash Tanchuma (Matot 7) says that some people get their priorities all messed up.  They confuse the ikar, the main dish, with the tofel, the side courses.  Tanchuma brings the example of the tribes of Gad and Reuven.  When they decided to take land on the eastern side of the Jordan as their inheritance – land not part of Israel – they told Moses they would build pens for their flock and cities for their children.  They put their flocks – their money – ahead of their families.  Tanchuma says that God chastised the two tribes, and told them “if you make your money more precious than your souls, you will not have blessings in your life.”

The generation that left Egypt confused the ikar and the tofel.  They got so hung up on their feeling a material lack that it drowned out the spiritual to the point where they were ready to go back to Egypt.  The essence is the spiritual – even if there was a material lack, they should have recognized which was more important.

The new generation of Israeli immigrants – the ones that complain about their material situation – are still happy with life in Israel overall.  Only 16% say they are overall dissatisfied with life in Israel.  They have remembered which is the ikar and which is the tofel.  They have for the most part been able to keep in mind the spiritual things that motivated their aliyah in the first place, even if they have an unwarranted feeling of financial lack.

These Western immigrants to Israel can serve as a good example to us all, countering the bad example of the generation that left Egypt.  It may be virtually impossible to completely forget about a time of greater material plenty when you are living in a time of less material plenty.  But we can all strive to remember to keep our priorities straight.

There are all sorts of decisions that we can each make rooted in the spiritual realm, not the physical realm.  Of course, one could decide to make aliyah.  But that’s not the only option.  Some people might decide to cut back on their hours at work to spend more time with the family.  Some might choose to observe Shabbat—refusing to work on the Sabbath—even though it may come at the cost of additional pay, or being passed over for a promotion.

The message we can take from this week’s Torah portion is that if you make a decision like that – a decision that quite correctly puts ones spiritual needs above one’s material needs – don’t feel buyer’s remorse when it comes time to pay the price.  Accept the price with grace, and be appreciative for the blessings you have.

May God help us to always remember which is the ikar, which is the main thing, and which is the tofel, the side issue.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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