By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES
In the opening scene of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s highly-strung character Alvy Singer jokes about two elderly Jews having dinner at a resort. One turns to the other and says, “Boy, the food here is really terrible.” The other answers, “And the portions are so small!”
We Jews have a reputation for kvetching, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this week’s parsha, Beha’alotecha.
The Israelites have kvetched in the desert before. Following the Exodus, they cried, “You have brought us out here into this desert to make us all die from hunger.” (Exodus 16:3). Moses advocated for his people and G-d sent manna.
This time, the kvetching is different. It happens, not because the people are hungry, but because they are bored. “…the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat?”’ (11:4)
As the story progresses, G-d is unimpressed. G-d promises to provide meat until it is, literally, coming out of their noses (11:20). With the meat “still between their teeth,” many Israelites are struck by a plague and the most egregious offenders are killed.
It’s not such a mystery where the chutzpah to complain comes from. Our people have a proud history of creating systems designed to work better than before. The entire Talmud is filled with arguments around how to make Judaism and the world better.
As Rabbi Jonathan Saks says, “Judaism is a faith for those who seek to change the world… (it)is a protest against the world that is in the name of the world that ought to be…to make a difference, to change lives for the better, to heal some of the scars of our fractured world.”
The most baffling part of the parsha is not the complaining, but that, as justification for wanting to have a more diverse diet, the Hebrews hark back to when they were slaves: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge…” (11:5). Are the Israelites really saying that they would trade their freedom for fish?
We have to remember that for centuries, these people were slaves. Being a slave is a little like being a child: You don’t have much power but the basics are provided for you. In contrast, being a free adult is accompanied by great responsibility. It can be scary and exhausting. As adults we often yearn for the simplicity of childhood. We refer to years past as the “good old days.” We forget that childhood is chock full of its own difficulties, anxiety and fears.
All the more so when we speak of society. It may seem that 50 years ago, things were better. We remember a simpler, sweeter, more wholesome time. We forget it was also a time of bitter turmoil: Wars, racism, crime, sexism. For some, just being who they were was a criminal offence. Our memories are precious but sometimes they fool us and paint the past with sentimentality.
In our world today, there are some systems that are still not working and we struggle to come to terms with that. It is tempting to stay in innocence, to live, as they say, with the devil you know. But that is not a full life. A life stuck in nostalgia is stunted, cowardly, and ultimately will rot. The solution is not just to yearn for times past, but to face forward with a brave heart; to strive for justice, have faith, and continue our difficult journey toward the Promised Land.
Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.