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To Believe or Not to Believe, That Is the Question

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Jewish tradition teaches us that when a person dies, he is summoned to appear before the heavenly throne and asked to account for all his evil deeds. Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, one of the great Torah sages of the past generation who was murdered by the Nazis, asked a very thought provoking question: Isn't this demand to face justice itself a violation of justice?

Why can't every evildoer defend himself or herself with the plea that he did not believe in God while he was alive? Why can't he tell the heavenly court, "If you can demonstrate that I committed deeds that I myself regarded as evil I accept your jurisdiction to judge me. But why should I be judged for deeds I committed that I saw nothing wrong with even if they were evil in God's eyes? Why should I have been expected to interest myself in God's opinion's concerning good and evil when I never even believed in His existence?"

After all, God does not reveal Himself to everyone or go around demonstrating that He exists. In fact, the consensus of opinion among the intelligentsia of the Western world is that at best the question of God's existence is moot. It cannot be proven or disproved scientifically. That being the case, it is impossible to label a lack of belief in the existence of God irrational. On what principle of justice can God ever punish the disbeliever?


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In other words, at issue is not so much the belief in God itself but the issues that tag along with that belief. If we do not have to believe - if we can rationally claim there is no God - it follows that we are excused from the duty to search for and abide by God's standards of morality.

And if all morality is relative - defined by the individual - how can the individual be punished for his choices?

Secular moral systems are supported by the theory of utility as stated by John Stuart Mill and other social philosophers, and utility offers very weak grounds for punishment even for acts of evil towards others. Utility boils down to efficiency. Does it really make sense to punish people for being guilty of inefficiency? And when it comes to punishing people for the violation of other sorts of Torah commandments - such as Shabbat observance, for example - transgressions that harm no one, the defense of lack of belief seems powerful indeed.

Rabbi Elchanan explains that the answer to the question is to start from the opposite premise. If we assume for a moment that all sinners can be justly held accountable for their misdeeds, it follows that it must be natural and logical for all human beings to conclude that God does indeed exist. In fact, the conviction that God exists must be so powerfully wired into the human psyche, that it must inevitably lead human beings to consider the next question, which is: "God clearly exists, so I wonder if he wants or expects anything of me?"

But if we assume that this is indeed so, how can we explain the existence of such a multitude of intelligent, well-meaning people who declare with perfect honesty that they are skeptical concerning God's existence?


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The answer to this question is located in this week's Torah portion:

"When the ark would journey, Moses said, 'Arise YHVH, and let your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You.' And when it rested he would say, 'Reside tranquilly O YHVH, among the myriad thousands of Israel' "(Numbers 10:35-36)

These verses are marked off in the text by an inverted Hebrew letter nun placed on either side of the passage in the Torah scroll. Rashi (ibid.) explains in the name of the Midrash that the passage was singled out in this manner to indicate that this is not where these verses really belong. In fact they are an integral part of the description of the order of March of the Jewish camp described earlier in Parshat Be'halot'cha.

They were inserted into the text after the description of the departure from Mt. Sinai to form a break in the dangerous continuity between three historical disasters. Would this continuity have remained unbroken, Israel would have been shattered by their combined weight; because they were interrupted by the inserted passage Israel was able to recover:


  1. The Jewish people left Mt. Sinai like children excited to get out of school. As all the Torah commandments originate from Sinai, the possibility that God would increase the number of commandments was real only as long as they remained encamped around Mount Sinai. They were happy to leave because the departure put a cap on the number of the commandments. This joy of departure is the first disaster.



  2. Following the departure God kept them on the move for three days in a row. His motive was His eagerness to lead them to their destination, the land of Israel, as quickly as possible. But they complained about having to break up the camp and set it up again for three days in succession - God was driving them too hard - and expressed this complaint in a confrontational manner. The desire to complain was the second disaster.



  3. The Jewish people allowed themselves to get caught up in the cravings of the rabble that accompanied them out of Egypt. They protested being subjected to the diet of unadulterated manna; they missed the vegetables of Egypt and were unable to fully satisfy their craving for fresh meat. This bitterness over the diet eventually spread to embrace the sexual restrictions that were imposed on them at Mt. Sinai. Their desire for meat and the fleshpots of Egypt was the third disaster.


The 'disastrous' magnitude of these shortcomings is far from self-evident. All kids are happy to leave school after all! What is so terrible about this universal human impulse that succumbing to it is considered such a major tragedy?

As far as the second 'tragedy' is concerned, who doesn't complain? Even people who are totally satisfied with their lot complain. The lucky applicant who is thrilled to death to land a job with a major corporation and would never think of giving it up for love or money will almost invariably complain about the long hours he is asked to work and the need to burn the midnight oil. Yet these complaints provoked such great Divine anger that:

"A fire of God burned among them and it consumed the edge of the camp [where the elders were encamped]." (Numbers 11:1)

The third tragedy at least makes sense on the surface. We can empathize with God's anger at the rejection of the miraculous food He provided. But judging by the reaction it provoked even this tragedy seems to have been taken out of proportion. It prompted Moses into delivering perhaps the most astonishing speech recorded in the Torah:

"Moses said to God: Why have you done evil to Your servant; why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that you place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling, to the land that you swore to its forefathers'? Where shall I get meat to give to this entire people when they weep to me, saying, 'Give us meat that we may eat?' I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me! And if this is how You deal with me, then kill me now, if I have found favor in your eyes, and let me not see my evil!" (Numbers 11:11-15)

What is the background to this impassioned lament? Why didn't Moses just tell the people they had to grow up, there was nothing he could do, they would just have to get accustomed to the manna; in any case they would arrive at their destination soon enough. Why did he get so upset, and why did he require the help of the newly appointed elders? What did they have to do with the miraculous provision of fresh meat through the arrival of the 'slav' birds?


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A deeper analysis of these three incidents exposes a progressively unwinding thread of spiritual deterioration. Most kids enjoy school and learning and generally desire to return to school long before their vacations end. For the intelligent person learning can be the most rewarding experience in life. If you have the good fortune to attend a top-notch school, staffed by interesting and interested teachers, you will never match the intensity of the stimulation you encounter in this environment no matter where you go or what you do for the remainder of your life. And yet most students are burning to leave school by the time they graduate. Why?

Learning is a spiritual experience. Every spiritual experience forces you to grow and stretch your mental and emotional horizons. When you are learning intensely full time, the experience of ceaseless spiritual expansion is all pervasive; there are always new ideas for you to absorb, new attitudes to internalize - the person of yesterday is constantly being replaced; the danger of being totally engulfed by the chaos of ceaseless change is ever present. It is the tension of being swallowed by something immense that the brilliant student learning in the top-notch school flees from.

Complaining is another form of distancing yourself from spiritual experience. Refusing to allow yourself to become inspired is a defense mechanism that allows you to retain control over your own soul. God wants me to be fired up by the speed of the journey to Israel, by the fiery cloud that appears at night, by the clouds that envelop me and transport me on a sort of floating platform during the day. He wants me to surrender my entire being to the experience of connecting with Him and with His plans for me.

But I want some distance; so I complain: Things are not so wonderful, it is difficult to get up so early, to pack so often; I am tired today, I am just not up to developing any fiery enthusiasm. The heavenly fire that would otherwise have uplifted and inspired is absorbed instead as something harmful which debilitates and destroys. The greater the potential spiritual inspiration being offered, the greater the disappointment and destruction over its rejection as something negative - it is significant that it was the elders who were consumed by the Divine flames.


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Finally, let us turn to the manna. The manna was truly a 'soul' food. The Talmud (Yuma 75a) gives a detailed description of some of its properties. Among others listed there: it pulls one towards an interest in spirituality in the same way as the most inspiring speech; it has the capacity to respond instantly to an individual's spiritual level.

The manna fell on the doorstep of the righteous; the less worthy found their manna inside the camp but they had to walk to get it; for those who had transgressed in some way it fell outside the camp, and some people had to go a far distance before they found it. When a person altered his spiritual level his manna supply responded instantly to the change in him. Each individual's spiritual level was always a matter of public knowledge as long as the manna fell; hypocrisy was impossible. It is clear that the effect of the manna diet was to force one into a life of spirituality.

The objection to the manna is based on this property of its being a soul food. Instead of man consuming his food, when he eats manna his food consumes him. The 'Erev rav', the multitude of people who accompanied the Jews out of Egypt, were interested in spirituality but were not willing to be consumed by it. They did not wish to inhabit a world where the main concern in life was the level of one's attachment to God. They also wanted to taste the fun and relaxation of indulging in physical desire. It isn't so much that they desired meat or a more varied diet - they desired desire. This attitude spread to the children of Israel and infected them as well.


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The downside of spirituality is that it is infinite. There is no limit or measure to the spiritual union that one can form with God who is infinite Himself. You have to give it your all without reservation. Mediocrity is just not acceptable.

Moses was a great teacher and an inspiring leader. But to attach yourself to him you had to be willing to live purely on the manna. He drove his followers to a life of unalloyed spirituality, to maximum attachment to God. It was not by accident that the food available during his tenure as leader was the manna. Manna was the sort of food that matched Moses' vision of the purpose of existence; the Jewish leader is a conduit for transporting the Divine emanation that sustains the world; Moses provided the wherewithal of survival for a spiritual life. He was not able to serve as a conduit to God for the provision of meat.

The meat they sought in the desert was not our sort of meat; we have no manna to eat as an alternative; to the desert generation meat was the antithesis of soul food; it was being demanded by people who were interested in indulging their physical desires and retreating from their level of spirituality. To be able to obtain such food from Heaven, Israel needed other leaders, who were not on the high spiritual plane of Moses.

"But you who cling to YHVH your God, you are all alive today." (Deut. 4:4) How is it possible to cling to God when it is written in the same passage "For YHVH your God, He is a consuming fire" (ibid., 24). How can a human being cling to fire? He should connect with a Talmud Chacham, a Torah scholar. (Talmud, Kesubos 111b)

The gulf between Moses and the ordinary Jew is too great to bridge in one step. First one must connect to slightly lesser people and be inspired by them to grow spiritually until one is ready to connect oneself to Moses. Without the help of the elders Moses could not supply any meat.


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We are ready to return to Rabbi Elchanan's proposition at last.

This week's Torah portion demonstrates that the obstacle to leading a life of spirituality is not necessarily attributable to a lack of faith in God's existence. There could never have been human beings who were as convinced of God's existence as the Jewish people in the desert who subsisted on manna and lived within God's cloud. And yet, despite their clarity of vision, they still wanted to distance themselves from their spirituality.

We are not so different. The truth is that every human is being is self-conscious as a spiritual being. Just as he is conscious of his body and is aware that it will die, he is also conscious that his spirit is eternal, is not dependant on his body for its existence and will survive eternally. As we all contain the infinite inside our own being, it is clear to all of us that the Infinite can and does exist outside of ourselves as well.

The self-consciousness of our own spirituality is the marker God placed inside all of us that clearly points in His direction. We are as aware of God's existence as we are aware of our own. Whoever takes himself seriously as a spiritual being will surely find his way to God. If he is a Jew, the awareness of his spirituality will lead him back to his roots as a Jew.

If this does not happen, it can only be because this part of one's own self-consciousness is being rejected entirely or at least discouraged and ignored. Faced with the infinite inside ourselves many of us recoil. It is too frightening to attempt to connect with the Infinite; the connection makes too many demands; it consumes one's entire existence and makes all other aspects of life pale into insignificance.

It is difficult to walk the earth with the feeling that God supplies the energy for one's every breath; it is safer to ignore the entire area of spirituality and stick to the predictable and less demanding. If we reject the marker of the infinite inside our own beings, and ignore our spirituality, we can safely ignore the Infinite outside of ourselves as well and ignore the fact of God's existence. The reluctance to eat manna comes from the rejection of our own self-consciousness as spiritual beings; it is a force that pulls at all of us.


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The answer to R' Elchanan's questions supplies us with the key we require to understand Rashi's 'tragedies': we slip away from our spirituality almost without noticing it. The loss is a subtle process; it sneaks up on a person. First he is merely happy to leave school, then he begins to complain, and only later does he enter the world of desire. The unwinding of the thread of spirituality must be stopped before the human being drowns in the ocean of his desires.

Following the Torah reading, when the scroll is returned to the ark Jews recite a prayer that joins the prayer of Moses quoted above to another prayer:

And when it rested he would say, 'Return YHVH to the myriad thousands of Israel' ... Bring us back to you God and we shall return, renew our days as of old.

What a curious combination of ideas! First we ask God to return to us. Then we ask Him to bring us back to Him; finally we promise that if He does bring us back we shall return. We seem to be advancing a peculiar interpretation of Moses' prayer, 'Return God to the myriad thousands of Israel'. We understand it as a request for God to bring us back to Him so that we can return. Although we talk about God returning, it is we who are actually returning. The authors of our prayers based their interpretation on the following Midrash:

"Bring us back to you God and we shall return" : the congregation of Israel says to God - the entire matter is in Your hands; You must bring us back! But God answers that it is in Israel's hands not His, as it is written "Return to me and I will return to you says God" (Zechariah 3) (Eicha Rabba 5,21)

Spiritual equilibrium can only to be attained by establishing a balance between these conflicting demands. God tells man: "You must turn to me first and only then will I turn to you." But man responds to God: "I cannot do that. I need You to turn to me and bring me back to You before I am able to turn to You at all." The spiritual level of the Jewish people can be restored only if both sides act in concert. Man must turn to God; but God must turn to man, allowing man to turn to God with greater intensity, allowing God to focus His attention more fully on man....

One of the most often recited prayers in Jewish liturgy is the Ashrei prayer. The prayer is organized so that each verse begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet arranged in sequence; the letter nun, which is omitted, is the only exception. The Talmud explains that the omission; the letter nun is the first letter of the world nofel, which means, "to fall"; it was omitted from the Ashrei prayer to avoid the slightest hint to Israel's possible fall in our prayers. Instead of appearing at the beginning of its own verse the letter nun is inserted into the following verse beginning with the letter samach, which refers to God as "the supporter of the fallen."

It is now clear why Moses' prayer is marked off from the text with the inverted letters nun. The passage is inserted to stop spiritual diminishment from turning into spiritual freefall. When we begin to ignore the powerful message concerning our spirituality that is programmed into our self-consciousness we desperately need God to do His part:

"Bring us back to You, O God and we shall return, renew our days as of old."


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