Shabbat Shalom! Do you ever have an experience that’s not inherently terrible, but something about it is unnerving, and you think to yourself, “This is how horror movies start,” and the existential dread starts crawling up from the pit of your stomach to your heart, to your brain? Do you sometimes feel anxious and not even really know why? Do you feel sadness and angst and a total mood drop even after a real fun night out with friends or a successful presentation or other sort of adrenaline rush? Well, if so, congratulations, you’re human! And if you feel like you have those moments more frequently than your peers, then congratulations, you’re probably Jewish!
Though existential dread is obviously not uniquely Jewish, it is pretty core to our peoplehood’s myth making, going all the way back to Biblical times. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Beha’alot’cha, we see the incessant whining of the Israelites wandering the desert in the light of Jewish neuroses. These are a people who have witnessed great miracles and experienced direct theophany. The rabbis calculate that this is about a year after the Exodus, so for the most part, everyone present was someone who walked out of Egypt through a parted sea and had the synesthetic experiences of the revelation of God at Mount Sinai. And yet, they are not grateful for God’s mercy or excited for their hopeful arrivals to the Holy Land. They. Are. Terrified. And that terror manifests as dissatisfaction of thirst and hunger and rest. They complain that the wandering is too tiring, that they don’t really know where they are going, that they will die in this wilderness, and they would have rather stayed slaves, where at least they knew where their next meal would come from and when they could rest. They ask Moses, “Who will feed us meat?” despite also not ever eating meat, other than fish, in Egypt, despite having livestock with which they could provide themselves with meat, despite the miracle of the manna providing wholesome nutrients for them every morning. When they despair of the manna, saying it’s not satisfying enough and it doesn’t feel secure because they have to pray for it anew each day, they say, “Ein Kol,” which though generally translated as “There is nothing,” literally means “There is not everything!”
Modern day commentator, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, brings in her background as a psychoanalyst to assess this neurotic behavior. She says that this desire for more is not merely a symptom of ingratitude but of a desire to avoid the fear of scarcity. The manna wasn’t gratifying because there was an uncertainty about it. What if it ceased to appear? The opposite of gratification, of being content that Israelites have what they need right now, Zornberg says, is a concept of “bread in the basket” - a confidence that the Israelites will have all they need for the future. The lack of this confidence drives them mad, causing them to express this irrational greed. When God provides the meat they desire, they gorge themselves to death.
When I was in college, I was in a play called “Metamorphoses”. A friend asked me to act in it and I agreed thinking I would get to roll around and be a cockroach. It turns out, “Metamorphoses” is different from “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka, and is actually a series of vignettes based on Ovid’s epic Greek poems. Among other roles, I got to play the part of Hunger in the Erysichthon and Ceres skit. Erysichthon chops down one of the goddess Ceres’s trees, leading her to curse him (or her, as in our production the role was played by a woman) with endless hunger. I crept up behind Erysichthon, hovering as she feasted. I climbed onto her back and she carried me piggy-back style as she sold all her earthly possessions to buy more food. The weight of me, of Hunger, weighed her down until by the end of the scene, she was crawling, dragging me along, until she started to gnaw on her own arm and the stage went dark.
Unchecked hunger, fear of scarcity, and giving in to base coping mechanisms in order to deal with existential dread will lead us astray from our goals and from healthy living. Rashi comments on this parasha, that the people of Israel were only three more days from the entrance to the Holy Land. But then Israelites break out into this complaining, they gorge themselves on quail and die from the plague of greed, so this is when God truly decides that this generation is not ready to enter the promised land. In a desperation to reach an end to the wandering, to the desire for stability, they made their wandering worse and their stability farther off and more desirous.
Existential dread and giving in to unhealthy coping mechanisms are not unnatural or even unreasonable habits for people to fall into. Life is scary, and our instincts want us to compensate from the creeping fear. But it is our job as rational human beings to overcome the visceral reactions and neurotic tendencies that emerge from trauma. To heal ourselves and our communities, to survive, to thrive. In the wilderness, that meant showing gratitude for God’s miracles and contenting oneself with manna, continuing on the journey toward the Holy Land. Today, that might mean seeking mental health care, practicing self-care, being honest with our communities about our needs, and looking for healthier ways to live and be in the world. May we all find comfort in our own lives, security in what we already have, and bring strength and love to each other and this world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.