Spiritual Meat and Sublime Joy

We have no inkling of the loftiness of the Bnei Yisrael who left Egypt. We can’t possibly comprehend the greatness of a generation who merited to witness the splitting of the sea and to hear Hashem speak to them on Har Sinai.

This week we learn about the most perplexing episode of the Misoninim. It seems inconceivable that these great spiritual giants should demand something as materialistic as meat.

Why did the Bnei Yisrael want meat so badly? Why weren’t they satisfied with the mann?

What would seem to be even more puzzling is the subsequent statement made by Moshe Rabbeinu to Hashem: “Six hundred thousand people on foot are the people in whose midst I am, and You say, ‘I will give them meat, and they will eat it for a full month’? Can flock and cattle be slaughtered for them and suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?”

The Ribbono shel Olam then responds, “Is the Hand of Hashem too short? Now you will see if what I said will happen to you or not.”

While Rabi Shimon offers an alternative explanation, Rabi Akiva states that this passuk should be understood literally, and suggests that Moshe Rabbeinu erred in his remark.

Certainly, Moshe Rabbeinu knew that the power of Hashem is infinite, so how should we understand his words?

The Arugas Habosem gives a fascinating and very relevant explanation.

The Ramban in Parashas Beshalach teaches us that it was the tzaddikim among the Bnei Yisrael who, in addition to the mann, also merited to receive the meat of the bird the Torah refers to as the slav. This was no ordinary meat, but rather a form of spiritual sustenance that was on an even higher level than the mann.

When the rabble among them began to clamor for meat, the rest of the nation — who didn’t merit to eat this lofty, spiritual meat either — wept as well. Unlike the rabble, who were filled with physical craving, their motives were spiritual in nature. They envied the lofty stature merited by a select few. The fact that they weren’t getting the meat symbolized to them a spiritual deficiency and caused them to feel depressed and distraught.

Sefarim teach us that an individual should spend a few minutes a day contemplating his mistakes and taking stock of his failures as part of the process of spiritual self-improvement. But the rest of the time, he is obligated to serve Hashem with joy.

Feeling “down” — even when this emotion purportedly stems from guilt over past misdeeds or acknowledgment of personal deficiencies — is in fact very counterproductive. Morale is a crucial component on every battlefield, and the war against the Evil Inclination is no exception.

The Bnei Yisrael meant well when they wanted spiritual meat, but they failed to realize that their despondency was actually the work of the Evil Inclination. For were they to be fed this meat when they were unworthy, it would actually be too powerful for them and would cause their demise.

When Moshe Rabbeinu spoke of cattle and fish, his intention was to say that the request of the Bnei Yisrael for meat was not for a request for temporal things but rather for the spiritual meat that can only come from the Heavens. Moshe Rabbeinu argued that since it was spirituality that they wanted — and yet were unworthy to receive — it would seem inconceivable for Hashem to provide it. Hashem answered that were they not given these doses of spiritual meat, there would be room to doubt that the power of Hashem to provide spiritual sustenance at all times is unlimited.

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Many lessons that can be drawn from this teaching of the Arugas Habosem. Among them is the centrality of simchah as a fundamental component of avodas Hashem. One must be exceedingly careful to keep any thoughts of melancholy at bay. Even when it appears that the distress one is sensing stems from a process of self-improvement, one must apply a simple but mandatory litmus test: “What are these thoughts leading to?” If the immediate result is a practical, energetic, improvement in avodas Hashem, this distress is a positive one. If, however, this distress is causing one to doubt the strength of his connection with Hashem, and it plunges one into the pit of despair, then that is evidence that it is a ploy of the Evil Inclination masquerading as an effort towards teshuvah.

In addition, while we must always strive to improve, we must be cognizant that one doesn’t reach the levels of the spiritual masters overnight. It takes much time and strenuous effort to climb high on the ladder, and we must do so with joy in opur hearts and a song on our lips.