- Rabbi Isaac Roussel
Graveyard of Cravings
Back in January we read Parshat Beshalach where the people complained that they had no food to eat and God gave them manna. There have been several theories about what this substance actually was but nothing definitive. The people gathered this every day except on Shabbat and it sustained them.
This week we read about the people again complaining. They aren’t satisfied with just Manna, they want something more. They cry out, “We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our souls are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
Moshe is angered by this and so is Hashem. Once the champion of the people, he now cries out to God, “Why have you burdened me with this people? What have I done to deserve them?” He begs God to kill him.
God is also angry but He gives the people what they want. He says “Alright, if you want meat, I’ll give you meat until you are sick of it! You will be up to your nostrils with it!” And He sends quail upon them until they cannot take it anymore. He also visits another plague upon them and many die. Because of this the place was named Kiv-rot Ha-Ta-a-vah, The Graves of Craving.
Hashem also has Moshe gather 70 elders and He puts some of His spirit upon them just as He had Moshe so that they could help him carry the burden. These 70, filled with the Ruach, prophesy.
This whole incident speaks to what Mussar calls Menuchat HaNefesh, which literally means calmness of spirit, but can be translated as “equanimity”. This is one of the soul traits, or middot, that Mussar focuses on. People often think this trait means that you are always serene and free from any inner turmoil. This is not the case. Equanimity means that you don’t allow the ups and downs of life to throw you for a loop. And especially, that you don’t act negatively when experiencing tsuris. Mussar teaches that life is like the waves of the sea; there are ups and downs. People with Menuchat HaNefesh ride the waves. It's not that there aren’t any ups and downs, but it is being centered enough to recognize them and not allow them to spin you out of control.
The principle cause for losing equanimity is craving; craving like the people craved meat. We crave things like money, authority, affirmation, pleasure, and the like. When we allow this craving to run amok, we, like the people of our text, spin out of control. We cry out “If only I had a better job!” “If only my spouse were better!” “If only I had more money, was healthy, had more friends, etc…” Craving comes from inordinate attachment to these things. And they cause us to act out negatively and to destroy ourselves internally.
The Baal Shem Tov places a spin on our text. He interprets Kiv-rot Ha-Ta-a-vah, not as The Graveyard of Craving, but the place wherein we bury our cravings. He says, “Kivrot-HaTa’avah, this is the aspect of wisdom, for there the people buried their cravings. The explanation is that anyone who attains the quality of wisdom can thus make as nothing all of their cravings, from the greatness of his/ her cleaving to the Holy One of Blessed Name.”
It is in his words that we find a major source to equanimity; that is that we crave Hashem rather than other things. When our hearts and eyes are upon Him, these other things fall into perspective. Yeshua said “Do not run after the things of this world, as the pagans do. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all of these other things shall be added to you.” Rav Shaul said, “Don’t worry about anything; on the contrary, make your requests known to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving. Then God’s shalom, passing all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with the Messiah Yeshua.”
I have mentioned before that I have recently reconnected to the Shiviti Meditation. This utilizes Psalm 16:8 which says “Shiviti Adonai l'negdi tamid, I place Adonai before me always”. It then continues with the recitation of Psalm 67 as a visual meditation of lighting God’s light within you, the verses forming the shape of a menorah. The Baal Shem Tov has commentary on this as well. He notes that the word “Shiviti” comes from the root Shin-Vav-Hay which gets used as “to place” but also is used to express equality. For example, God says through Isaiah, “ve-el mi te-da-me-u-ni ve-esh-veh? To whom can you compare me? Whom do I resemble?” The Baal Shem Tov comments on this verse,
“Shiviti is an expression of hishtavut [another term for equanimity]: no matter what happens, whether people praise or shame you, and so, too, with anything else, it is all the same to you. This applies likewise to any food: it is all the same to you whether you eat delicacies or other things. For [with this perspective] the yetzer hara is entirely removed from you.”
Equanimity is understanding that there will be ups and downs in life, that there will be trials and tribulations, but that all things work for the good of those who love Hashem, as Rav Shaul says.
I would say that a better translation would be for all those who are lovingly devoted to Hashem.
Yaakov, Yeshua’s brother, says it best when he says, “Regard it all as joy, my brothers, when you face various kinds of temptations; for you know that the testing of your trust produces perseverance. But let perseverance do its complete work; so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.”
But we have to recognize that these trials and temptations can come from within. I have found that a great source of menuchat ha-nefesh for me is paying attention to these inordinate cravings and strong reactions. If I can recognize them for what they are before I react negatively, I can avoid doing damage to relationships and avoid polluting this world with more darkness. I have learned to watch for my inner triggers. An example of this for me is don’t tell me that I cannot do something. This causes an inner rebellion to well up that if unchecked can lead to damaging words and actions. I have learned to pay attention to this, recognize it for what it is, and quell it. We all have such triggers, they are conditioned responses to life that get ingrained in us. They feed the yetzer hara.
Even good things can also disturb our equanimity if we allow them to. We can swell with pride, be tempted to gloat, or get angry that one person praised us but another didn’t. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin in his book Cheshbon HaNefesh sums up equanimity this way. “Rise above events that are inconsequential- both good and bad- for they are not worth disturbing your calmness of soul.”
In the Christian tradition, Ignatius of Loyola, wrote about such things. He was a co-founder of the Jesuits. He talks about just how quickly a good thing can flip into negative. One second we are experiencing consolation and the next second it flips to desolation. He warns us to be on the look out for the serpent’s tail, which we often can only detect out of the corner of our eye.
Like the serpent in Gan Eden, the yetzer hara is subtle and can be in control of us before we know it. We can even be proud about how good and holy we are being, when in reality we are listening to the serpent! There’s a reason that the best villains in stories are the ones that are convinced they are doing good. This happens to us all too often. We leave a path of destroyed relationships while all the time smugly celebrating how good we are.
Going back to the Shiviti meditation and the imagery of lighting the menorah, we have this statement in Cheshbon HaNefesh. I am not sure if he meant to connect it to this meditation, but it fits quite well. He wrote, “As long as a person’s mind is settled, their intellectual spirit quietly stands guard, spreading its light upon their mind as if it were a torch atop the edifice of their body.” [modified for inclusive language]
We become the menorah of Hashem’s light when we have equanimity.
Note that the 70 elders stand in stark contrast to the craving masses. They cry out “Our souls are shriveled!” Their cravings for things of this world have led to their spirits shriveling. The elders on the other hand crave God and become prophets.
There are a number of word plays in our text expressing the dichotomy of the elders and those craving meat. Note that it is a ruach, wind, that sweeps the quail in. But it is the ruach that settles upon the elders. God is contrasting His goal for us to desire His spirit above all things with those who only want worldly things to be spirited to them.
In the Hebrew, we find the word “asaf” used seven times. This means “to gather”. God asks Moshe to gather the 70 elders to receive His Spirit. The people who complain about not having meat are called “asafsuf”, often translated as mixed multitude, they are the gathered crowd. Hashem wants gather us around Himself, but we often gather around our cravings, shutting Him out.
May we create our own kivrot ha-taavah, by burying our cravings.
May we place Hashem ever before our eyes, so that the Shiviti leads to hishtavut.
May we recognize our inner compulsions and tiggers that disturb our balance and avoid words and actions that pollute our world.
Then we will truly light the menorah of our lives, and shed Hashem’s light upon the world.