Thursday, June 9, 2011

Behaalotecha

Since the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union there has been a proliferation of pork stores in Israel.  Now in the holy city of Jerusalem one can easily buy ham.  Russian Jews, who now comprise twenty percent of the Israeli population, apparently love pork.  And so they have brought the food they grew to love in Russia to the State of Israel.

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  Now our gullets are shriveled.  There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to!’”  (Numbers 11:4-6)

Too often people are unable to recognize the blessings that they have.  The Israelites were recently freed from slavery in Egypt.  Within months they began complaining.  True they were stuck wandering the Sinai wilderness.  But they were free.  They were their own people.  No longer were they forced to build palaces for Pharaoh.  Water was plentiful.  Manna was abundant.  Still they longed for the familiarity of Egypt.  They longed for the foods of their slave owners.   

It was as if they said, “At least when we were in jail we ate three meals a day.”  Even when immigrants are grateful to leave their countries of origin and even when they have gained freedom in a new found home, they continue to long for the food their parents served them, or for that matter the food their taskmasters provided them.   It was as if Russian Jews looked at all of Israel’s successes and said, “There is nothing but this falafel and hummus!”

Many times people are unable to see the blessings that stand before them.  They always want more.  People are too often unhappy with the gifts they have.   We fail see our freedoms.  We are unable, for example, to see the many blessings of our American democracy.  Instead we focus on our country’s problems.  Instead we focus on our gluttonous craving.  We only see what we left behind.  Rabbi ben Zoma teaches: “Who is rich?  Those who are content with their portion.”

But how can we be content when we face so many struggles and challenges?  The Israelites were unable to do so.  They were wandering through the desert.  It was beginning to look like their trip was going to take much longer than planned.  Perhaps it is understandable that they wanted to go back to Egypt.  Perhaps it is understandable that they wanted to taste the familiar. 

Immigrants make better lives for themselves here in this country, as well as in Israel, and enrich our country in the process.  Even though they desperately wanted to leave their home countries, they still long for the familiar sights, sounds and especially tastes of their youth.  Recently when driving through Queens I saw Indian and Pakistani immigrants playing cricket.  I thought to myself, “Why would they invest so much time and energy in the sport of their former British overlords?”  And then I realized that they were not playing a British game but the game of their youth.  People always long for the familiar.  They will always love their home country’s cooking.  Comfort food is whatever one grows up eating.  Why?

It is provided for you.  Life is much harder when you have to provide for yourself, when you have to cook for yourself.  There are moments when we long for the past, even with its limits, even when it represents a time when decisions were made for us.  We ask, how can we move forward through challenges and struggles while still seeing the blessings that lie before us?  How can we move forward while still holding fast to our youthful past without allowing it to rule our lives?

Perhaps it is helpful to savor the food with which we grew up.  Even when it is the food of the country we were thankful to leave, its taste gives us strength to fight the challenges of today.

No comments: