What are your children doing for the summer?
Given the choice, one of mine would find a cozy corner, log onto an electronic device and Netflix or youtube the summer away, the second would ask me every day what activity I’d planned for each hour, and the third is used to going along with whatever everyone else is doing.
But they don’t have a choice.
Everyone needs structure and accountability in their day, most days. (Not to mention vitamin D and live social interactions). While summer is freedom from the routine of school – getting up early, long days sitting in the classroom, homework in the evenings – it should still offer a framework and a plan.
At least for most days.
Everyone needs time to unwind, to just hang out. I certainly cherish those days I don’t have to watch the clock to make sure I get everybody where they need to be when they need to be there, days when I can just stay home and let the time pass without constantly monitoring what I’ve accomplished and what still needs to be done, without keeping track of who needs to be fed and what dishes are left to be washed.
Our children crave that same freedom. But too much of a good thing is never a good thing.
In this week’s parasha, Be-Ha’alotekha, the Israelites, free from slavery and making their way towards the Promised Land, seem to grow increasingly unhappy.
The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.
We are not told what the Israelites were complaining about, but we understand from God’s reaction that the nature of their complaints reflected a disloyalty and lack of faith in Him. The people cry out to Moses who prays to God on their behalf and the fire is extinguished.
Perhaps because the nature of their initial complaints was not addressed explicitly, the discontent seems to fester among a particular group, who spur the people on and incite further grumbling:
The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said: “Who will feed us meat? 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 life is dry; we have nothing before our eyes but the manna!”
The rabbis were curious about this concept of “free fish.” They argued that the Egyptians would not even provide them with straw with which to build, why then would they give so much fish to eat?
Those commentators who tried to understand the text literally explained that fish was plentiful in the Nile and easy for the Israelites to have their fill or that the Egyptians fed them well in order to work them harder. Herodotus, a Greek historian from the 5th century BCE, claimed the Egyptians didn’t eat fish so it makes sense that they would feed it to their slaves.
The text, however, indicates a more significant implication in their complaint. The Israelites bemoan the absence of meat in their diet, but then remember the fish they had to eat in Egypt. “We really wish we had meat to eat; we used to eat so much fish in Egypt.” There is something illogical in that construct. How does a memory of fish lead to a desire for meat?
When the Israelites ask who will provide them with meat, they are questioning God’s power. When they subsequently reminisce about the fish, they demonstrate that the real motive for their discontent is not the food supply. The rabbis explained that “for free” means “free from Divine commandments.”
The Israelites were not remembering the physical access to food; they were romancing a time when they were free from the demands of the Torah and the expectations for self-discipline. As slaves, they had no guidelines for ethical conduct and the slave masters had no vested interest in their workers’ character development. The Israelites may have been released from the shackles of Egyptian slavery, but now, some two months later, they have agreed to a different kind of yoke – service to God through His commandments.
Eating fish in Egypt was just eating fish. Now, after Mount Sinai, every behavior and action, including the basic bodily needs for simple nourishment, were scripted by Divine expectation.
God has been organizing the Israelites into a nation and imposing structure and formality, routine and procedure, rules and regulations onto this former band of runaway slaves.
This kind of fundamental change to the way we live each day is hard. New routines and structures need time for adjustment. But even more, they need faith and goodwill, and maybe even a thick skin, to persevere through the discomfort, endure the sharp edges of new and different, and pursue the improvements and enlightenments we seek.
Change needs courage and persistence.
The nature of the Israelites’ complaints shows us what happens when discontent simmers below the surface unaddressed. Grumblings and grievances, criticisms and mumblings erupt at the smallest of transgressions.
But the Torah also teaches us that what we think we want may not always be what is best for us.
So the Lord will give you meat and you will eat. Not for one day shall you eat, nor two days, nor twenty days. Until a month of days, until it will come out of your nose, and will become nauseating to you, because you have rejected the Lord Who is in your midst, and you have wept before Him, saying “Why did we leave Egypt?”
My children will spend some of their summer in camp and some of their summer with unscripted days to plan as we wish. We won’t all be happy with this plan every day. Some will want more structure; others less. But by the end of August, daily negotiations with a loose and easy routine will feel comfortable and ordinary, and maybe even a little tiring.
We’ll be refreshed and ready again for a change, a new routine even within a familiar schedule.
Some of us will be more ready than others.
As we leave for the summer – heavily planned, laid back and easy, or somewhere in between – the parasha teaches us to be mindful of the energy and courage change requires, to acknowledge and validate the discomforts of adapting to new structures and to embrace the possibilities of the future with faith and loyalty – in ourselves, in the people around us and in God.
I wish you all a hot, fun and safe summer.