Beha'aloscha: Balancing Natural Forces
By Dr. Jon Greenberg
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This week's Torah portion begins on a positive, confident
note. Moshe (Moses) is commanded to transmit the Divine instructions for
lighting the oil-lamp menorah to Aharon (Aaron), and to dedicate the tribe of
Levi to the service of the mishkan (Tabernacle). The instructions are clear,
simple, and direct, and the imagery is positive—light, bathing, cleanliness,
Yet, by the end of the parshah, the Jewish nation has
degenerated to the point that they are punished with mass destruction and
burial at Kivrot haTaavah, the Graves of Appetite. What ideal is symbolized by
lighting of the menorah at the beginning of the parshah, and how did we fail so
disastrously to achieve it?
The menorah is mentioned repeatedly in the Torah, usually in
conjunction with the shulchan, the table and shelves that held the lechem
panim, or “showbread”. What is the connection between these two items? The only
relationship between the shulchan and the menorah that the Torah mentions is
geometric: twice in the Torah we are directed that the menorah is to be placed
on the southern side of the mishkan, and the shulchan on its northern side. 
At a time when our ancestors lived in intimate contact with
nature, north and south carried many important connotations. The north wind
brings cool, moist air and rain clouds; the south wind (shar’av or chamsin) is
hot, dry, and dusty. Like all farmers, ancient Jews hoped that each would
arrive at the time when it would be beneficial. The Talmud recognizes this
“The north wind is helpful to wheat when it has completed
one third of its ripening, and damaging to olive trees in bloom. The south wind
is damaging to wheat that is one-third ripe, and a benefit to olive trees when
they are in bloom. Hence, the shulchan was placed in the north, and the menorah
in the south.”
When do these winds occur? The late spring period between
Pesach and Shavuot is known in Hebrew as sefirah (literally ‘counting’). This
name refers to the fact that the Torah gives no date for Shavuot. Rather, we
are instructed to count 49 days, beginning with the second day of Pesach.
The fiftieth day is then the date of Shavuot; hence its English name
‘Pentecost.’ In Israel,
the weather of the first weeks of sefirah is still dominated by the northern
air masses that arrive during the winter. This cool, moist northern air bring
the rains of winter and early spring. An ample supply of water is essential
to the growth of any plant part, including seeds and fruits. Thus, the north
wind helps the young growing wheat grains to expand. This growth enables the
grains to fill with starch and protein later, as they mature. However, olive
trees and other fruit trees flower during this period. Warm, dry conditions
favor the pollination of olive flowers. Rain during the first weeks after
Pesach, while beneficial to wheat, would wash away the olive pollen and
discourage pollinating bees from visiting the flowers. Conversely, rain during
the final weeks of sefirah, close to Shavuot, promotes the growth of olive
fruit, but it also encourages the growth of fungi that can damage the wheat
crop. Wet conditions also delay the wheat harvest, leading to rotting of the
grain or attacks by grain-eating insects and birds.
Placement of the menorah and the shulchan together in the
mishkan symbolically reminds us that both natural forces-- the rainy north wind
and the drying south wind—are under the control of the same One G-d, Who
rewards us with a healthy balance between these forces. If we understand this
and acknowledge our dependence on G-d, we can expect to be rewarded with the
produce affected by natural forces under the control of Heaven. We are promised
as much in the Torah. But if we imagine that we can separate natural forces
from each other or from their Divine source, whether through polytheism,
idolatry, or radical materialism that denies G-d, then we are doomed to
This was the offense of those who died at Kivrot haTaavah.
To crave meat was not a sin. To indulge gluttonously without acknowledging the
Creator or the limits of Creation was an expression of contempt for all that
G-d had done for them. Such behavior leads to disaster. Indeed, Rashi points
out that the demand for meat and other food was a mere pretext to complain.
To complain about what? Rashi’s comment seems to reflect the Talmud’s
suggestion that the complaint was not about substance, but an expression of frustration
at living under the mitzvot. The reflexive language—hit’avu ta’ava—“they
cultivated a craving”—evokes a group that dwells on its own frustrated desires.
A generalized dissatisfaction, expressed in endless demands for more material
things that do not bring happiness, can never be satisfied. Rashi calls this a
pretext for complaint.
Today, we would call it insatiable consumerism. We are told
that the Israelites collected enormous quantities of quail that they would
never be able to consume, decimating the birds. A desire that can never be
satisfied consumes resources to the point of destructiveness. An insatiable
consumer can become a public danger who must be restrained until he or she can
be reeducated to an attitude of gratitude and humility. Rashi explains further
 that the deaths at Kivrot haTaavah continued until the quail had been
provided for a month, demonstrating that this miraculous provision was indeed
possible, though it did not satisfy the complainers.
What is the alternative to seeking solace in destructive
unbridled consumption? Commenting on the instructions for the lighting of the
menorah at the beginning of our parsha, Rashi explains that its lamps did not
face out to maximize the illumination. Rather, they were turned inward
toward the menorah’s center, as if to indicate that we should cultivate an
inward light, not an attitude of entitlement or superiority. This is the key to
avoiding Kivrot haTaavah. Crass, self-seeking consumerism and over-consumption
lead us and all around us to a bad end. The menorah and the shulchan remind us
that Heaven provides all things, good and ill.
Understanding that everything in our world proceeds from
G-d, both when it serves our desires and when it does not, leads us to
appreciate and express gratitude for what we have. Humble and prudent
stewardship of our limited resources will ensure a future for ourselves and our
descendants. As the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot reminds us, “Who is
prosperous? One who is content with his portion.”
Suggested Action Items:
what you really care about, and avoid spending resources on things you
don’t really want or need. For example:
may be tempted by a new cell phone or the latest computer when the one you
have works just fine. See if you can keep yours for another six months or
a year to save money and reduce the resources used on a new one.
- If you
seldom transport more than 5 people, you probably won’t need an SUV. If
you do need a large vehicle, consider a minivan, which has as much space
as an SUV, is less expensive, uses less fuel, and produces less air
you planning a move? In addition to proximity to synagogues, school, work,
and shopping, think about access to efficient public transportation.
of seeking happiness through purchasing, make a list of pleasures you can
take in daily life. Authentic pleasures are satisfying and enduring. Give
these to yourself as presents.
money and produce less trash by planning your buying in advance and
avoiding single-serving packages. For example, bring your lunch to work.
Include a treat as a reward for yourself. Or, remember to pack sandwiches
and snacks for long car trips to avoid buying non-nutritious, over-priced
snacks at highway convenience stores.
Jon Greenberg, Ph.D. received his Bachelor’s degree with
honors in biology from Brown University and his Master’s and Doctorate in agronomy
from Cornell University. He has also studied with
Rabbi Chaim Brovender at Israel’s
Yeshivat Hamivtar and conducted research at Cornell, the US Department of Agriculture, and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Greenberg was a Senior
Editor of science textbooks at Prentice Hall Publishing Co. and an assistant
professor at the School of Education at Indiana University.
He teaches science at Yeshivas Ohr Yosef and is a frequent speaker at
synagogues and schools.
 Exodus 26:35
and Exodus 40:22-25
Talmud (200 C.E.-~500 C.E.) Baba Batra 147a
 Orni, Efraim
and Elisha Efrat. 1971. Geography of Israel, Third Edition. Jewish
Publication Society, Philadelphia.
Nogah. 1980. Nature in Our Biblical Heritage. Neot Kedumim,.Kiryat Ono, Israel. Pp. 30-42, 59-60.
 11th Century
Jewish scholar and commentator, France.
 Numbers 11:4
 Yoma 75a
 Numbers 11:20
 Numbers 8:2
(around 200CE) Avot 4:1