Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Doing It His Way
The horde among them desired a craving, and they wept and said, "Who will
feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free... but now our
life is dry - we have nothing to look forward to but the Manna!" (11:4-6)"
Ostensibly, their complaint was a valid one. Even the simplest of eaters
needs some variety in his diet. One could imagine that eating the same-
old-Mon (Manna) every day could get a little tedious. Consider, however,
that according to Chazal (our Sages) the Manna was able to adopt whatever
taste its eater craved. You wanted steak, it tasted like sirloin. Salmon -
poached or roasted? Would you like some desert? The possibilities are
endless; Mon was a culinary chameleon! Bearing this in mind, what more
could they have possibly desired?
There is one aspect of food-enjoyment that is even more critical than its
chef, its spicing, its texture, even its taste. Appetite. The most
exquisitely laid-out table with the most sumptuous of meals is meaningless
- if not an exercise in frustration - when one has no appetite to eat.
Chazal teach an important lesson when it comes to desire: The more one
gives in to one's desires, the more one yearns. And the converse: The more
a person restricts his desires, the less one craves (Sukkah 52b). This,
explains Meshech Chochma (using food as an example), is because the object
of his desire contains within it the potential to beget additional desire.
Just as the seed gives birth to fruit similar in all aspects to the fruit
from which it comes, so too the more desirous the object, the greater its
potential to make its consumer crave even more. The proverbial slope gets
Historically there was one exception to this rule. Manna. Chazal describe
Mon as a "spiritual food" - the nourishment of angels (Yoma 72b). In fact,
after a few days of eating Mon, they no longer needed to use the
"facilities" - it simply absorbed straight into the blood stream without
any waste. The Mon, being wholly spiritual, had the converse quality of
food; the more you ate, the less you desired. It came to a point that one
no longer physically desired to eat at all. They continued to eat because
intellectually they knew that without food they would die, but any
pleasurable aspect of food consumption was gone.
This was their complaint: "True we've been given a food that can be just
about whatever we want it to be - but we don't want it to be anything!
We've lost all desire, and eating is no longer an enjoyable experience but
rather a chore!"
Sefas Emes perceives a more altruistic angle to their complaint. It's not
that they missed the culinary contentment food used to bring them; they
missed the inner struggle between desire and morality. Desire, in a sense,
is the root of all evil, when allowed to take control and when given no
boundaries. In its absence, not only does food become tasteless, but, to
some extent, even being an ehrlicher Yid (good Jew) ceases to be a
challenge. It was, says the Sefas Emes, not so much the food they yearned
for but the challenge that yearning presents. This, he explains (as does
the Meshech Chochma), is what the Torah means, "They desired a desire."
Not, as we may have understood, that they desired the object of their
desire, but rather they missed desire itself. It's no big deal to be good
when there is very little driving one in the other direction.
This being the case, what was so terrible about their request?
It reminds me of the story of a certain exceptionally talented individual.
This person can do everything; sing, dance, poetry, juggle, learn - almost
everything he does he does exceptionally. Once, he was standing outside a
wedding hall looking for a ride home. Someone stopped and offered him a
ride. Recognizing his guest, the driver perked up. "Something wrong with
"No," he replied. "Actually, I don't drive."
"You're telling me you know how to do all those chochmas, and you can't
even drive?! Driving's no chochma!"
"Exactly!" he said "If it was a chochma, I'd know how to drive too!"
The Jews felt it was no chochma to serve Hashem while under the influence
of the Mon. There was no challenge, no nisayon (test). They wanted to feel
challenged, and experience some difficulty in serving Hashem, so they asked
for meat. In doing so they made a most critical error: They came with a
preconception of how they wanted to serve Hashem, instead of serving Hashem
the way He wanted to be served. They wanted being Jewish to be a chochma -
but that's not how Hashem wanted it to be.
In fact, their personal agenda blinded them to the fact that they were
indeed being tested. Their test was to deal with their boredom and the lack
of usual challenge in dealing with the human condition. Consider the
following: A strong learner finds himself in a yeshiva that has a high
percentage of students weaker than him. As a result, he feels, rightly so,
that the classes are not challenging enough for him. He wants to shteig in
his learning, and feels his yeshiva is not giving him the opportunity to do
so. On the other hand, his Rosh Yeshiva and rebbeim are telling him that he
is a tremendous asset to the yeshiva, that he picks up the level of hasmada
(studiousness), and is extremely helpful in assisting others weaker than
him. Evidently his challenge, at least for now, is not to spend long hours
diligently dissecting the most complex of pilpulim, but rather to deal with
the boredom and lack of intellectual stimulation he is experiencing. This
is not to say that he can not, at some point in the future, change
yeshivos; rather he must accept the challenges life (G-d) presents him in
the present, instead of moping about being underchallenged and
undermotivated. [Based on a shiur of Rabbi E. Breitowitz shlita]
A chassid, it is told, once came to one of the Gerer Rebbes with a
complaint. "Rebbe, I have no parnassa (sustenance), my wife's is sick, and
I'm constantly tired. How is one supposed to serve Hashem with peace-
of-mind in this kind of life?!"
"Who says Hashem wants you to serve Him with peace-of-mind," was the
rebbe's characteristically terse reply.
It is very easy for a person to go through life with a preconceived notion
of the definition of what a test is, and the challenges he expects life to
throw his way. Yet in doing so he's likely to often completely ignore the
tests Hashem is actually sending, so blinded is he by his bias. When it
comes to serving Hashem, the old refrain "I did it my way" is not
necessarily what the Almighty desires.
Have a good Shabbos.
Dedicated in loving memory of Levi Yitzchak ben Avraham Leib. Ye'hei
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.