June 10, 2011
“The French writer Andre Malraux opens his autobiography with the story of meeting an old comrade, a soldier with whom he fought in the war many years ago. The man subsequently became a priest. He told Malraux that from years of listening to confessions he had learned two things about human nature: that people have more trouble than he imagined and that “there is no such thing as a grown up.”
This is the central message of our Torah portion, Behaalotecha, and one of the fundamental principles of the Torah. “Israel is called B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel. They often behave like children at their worst. They are whining and ungrateful. When the Torah ends, at the conclusion of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites have still not reached the Promised Land. They are still in the Wilderness.” The Israelites had to wait forty years for the generation raised in slavery to die so that the generation raised in freedom could take on responsibility for living as a covenantal community with God, a people willing to sacrifice and go to war to conquer the land for themselves. There are several qualities that separate children from adults. It took the Jewish people forty years to absorb them.
In our Torah reading the people complained bitterly about the manna that God gave them to eat. Even though they did not have to plant or harvest it, and even though it was delicious, the people wanted the food they had in Egypt. They said (Numbers 11:4-5), “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!” God was greatly angry and disappointed with them. Like children, they could not see beyond the moment. They could not deal with their frustration and so kvetched to God, their parent. They were not able to take responsibility for themselves. They did not know how to express gratitude to God for all that He did for them. Learning how to express gratitude is one of the foundational values that separate children from adults.
One of the best lessons Sally and I taught our children was the importance of writing thank you notes. They learned this primarily from their bar and bat mitzvah experiences. We told them that they could not use their gifts or cash the checks they received until they wrote a thank you note for it. Would you believe that each one of the three wrote their thank you notes in under two weeks? To this day, they still acknowledge every gift they receive. They may not write a formal thank you note as they did when they were children, but they call and e-mail the giver to express their gratitude for the gift. They understand that if one does not express gratitude, one will no longer receive gifts.
Like a perturbed parent, God said to Moses, “I’ll give those children something to whine about! They want meat, I’ll give them meat. I’ll give them so much meat it will come out of their nostrils.” So God send flocks of quail for the people to gather and eat. They gathered so much they got sick. A plague struck them and many died. They were selfish, unthinking, ungrateful children who could not think about anything other than their present needs. All God wanted from them was a little gratitude, an acknowledgment that they were appreciative of all that God did for them. After all, it was no mean feat to bring the entire people out of Egyptian slavery, to split the Reed Sea, to give them the Torah, and to support them completely in the Wilderness. God, like a parent, did not expect a daily thank you note from the Children of Israel. An occasional thank you note would have sufficed.
One of the most important qualities that differentiate a child from an adult is the ability to express gratitude. Let us remember this the next time we receive a gift. Let us not take any gift, life, health, and family for granted. That is why we should express our thanks to God each and every day.