One of my favorite SNL characters is "Debbie Downer," who was played by Rachel Dratch during her tenure on the show. Debbie Downer, for those unfamiliar with the skits, always ruined people’s birthdays and happy celebrations by bringing up bad news or scary statistics. Looking into this week’s parashah, Behalotecha, we witness the entire tribe in full "Debbie Downer" mode, kvetching with the strength of Olympic athletes to Moses about of all things — the lack of diversity in their diets. The Israelites cry to Moses about their cravings for the particular foods they sampled so readily in Egypt, "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our souls are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at" (Numbers 11:5-6).
After reading the tribe’s complaints to Moses, a reader is perplexed at the Israelites’ critiques. The rabbis of our Jewish tradition teach that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, connotes narrowness or restriction. In Egypt, the Israelites’ lives were constricted both spiritually and physically. Not only were tribe members forbidden from worshipping God or practicing their religious customs and traditions, they were also vulnerable to physical abuse or death at the hands of their taskmasters.In the desert, it was a completely different story. During their journeys in the desert, the tribe witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea and received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. These were just two of the many moments at which they felt a great spiritual connection to God. In Egypt, the Israelites often complained that they had felt abandoned by God during their suffering. However, in the desert, the tribe was shadowed by a special cloud which was dispatched by God. This special cloud guided them in the right direction during their travels and affirmed God’s concern for the tribe’s well-being. While it is certain that the tribe grew to like certain foods from their time in Egypt, they ate all of their meals in freedom during their travels in the desert. Instead of depending on their taskmasters for access to food or slaving away to produce Egyptian crops, the Israelites’ basic human needs for nourishment were taken care of by God. They were sustained by a plentiful supply of manna, a special food source which was grinded to make cakes. Although the people complained about the taste of the manna, rabbinic sources teach that the manna actually tasted like whatever a person desired. Even though the manna apparently did not taste like cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic, it’s important to remember the tribe still had access to hundreds of different tastes and textures!
The Israelites’ grumblings in Behalotecha teach us some significant lessons about the place of gratitude in our lives. When we have an unproductive day, feel bored with our routines, or undergo a personal hardship, it’s easy to close our eyes to the light of positive opportunities, people, and experiences. Perhaps our Jewish tradition recognizes the human tendency to shift into "Debbie Downer" mode, and the brachot (blessings) are designed to catch us when we fall into negative moments. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir, a Jewish sage who lived around 150 CE, taught that it is a mitzvah to recite at least one hundred blessings every day. And, boy, do we have a lot of opportunities to make this happen as we move through our mornings, afternoons, and nights! We can recite brachot when we rise in the morning, partake in food, hear good news, or view a beautiful tree. The brachot, which can be easily accessed in any Siddur (prayer book), are designed to prompt feelings of thankfulness and joy in our hearts, minds, and souls. We also should remember that Judaism accords us the freedom to put our own spin on making brachot. If the words on the pages of our siddurim don’t accurately capture our feelings or gratitude or amazement, we should take the time to compose a creative prayer or simply take a few seconds to pause and reflect. Think about the day you had today. What is the tally on your brachot meter?
– Look your usual barista in the eye and thank him/her for making your latte just the way you like it, with 1% milk, two sugars and cinnamon on the top?
– Feel a sense of happiness when your subway train arrived on time, allowing you to make that very important lunch date?
– Treasure the time spent with your loved one or friend without worrying for at least 20 minutes about cell phones, blackberrys, or outside responsibilities?
– Thank your boss for assigning you to work on an exciting project of interest?
Parashah Behalotecha reminds us that it is easy to find ourselves back in the desert, complaining like our ancient Israelite tribe members. Just as yawns are contagious, so are kvetches. For once one kvetch has been launched, another one is sure to follow. However, parashah Behalotecha also teaches us that life is filled with times when we must utilize our voices to better ourselves or society at large (i.e. lending our efforts to a worthy political cause or working on a social justice project). In those cases, we must complain in constructive ways so that a positive outcome will emerge from our actions.
Finally, parashah Behalotecha instills that we need to open our eyes to the blessings present in our lives. As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches, "If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul." In the coming days and weeks, let’s try to take Rabbi Kushner’s wisdom to heart by fully acknowledging all of the goodness in our midst. May we make a greater personal commitment to "nurture our souls" through speaking the blessings of our tradition and hearts.