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Parashat Beha’alotkha 5783

June 6, 2023
by Rabbi Steven Altarescu ('14)

In my spiritual journey I have come across a difficulty that in Buddhist thought is taught to be the cause of much of our suffering. This is the phenomenon of craving. The human characteristic of craving is often confused with desire. Distinguishing between healthy desire and craving / unhealthy desire takes both thoughtful self-reflection into the source of desire and the consequences of acting on our desires. Craving originates in our fears, from trauma, loneliness and doubt. Healthy desires emanate from gratitude, love, compassion and the joy of connecting to our deepest selves, each other and the world.

We see the results of craving in how the lust for wealth, sex, food or alcohol have ruinous results for ourselves, our relationships and our planet. We also see how healthy desire manifests itself in acts of kindness, artistic creations, and in those who teach and share their knowledge, interests, and wonder of the world with others.

In Parashat Beha’alotekha, a group of Israelites have a craving for meat that is not being satisfied by the daily portion of manna that YHVH provides them. Despite Moses’ doubt in YHVH’s ability to provide enough meat for this large group we read:

“A wind from YHVH started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and about a day’s journey on that side, all around the camp, and some two cubits deep on the ground.” (Numbers 11:31)

Miraculously there was more quail than anyone could possibly consume. It seems that we are being taught a lesson about the relationship between craving and being satisfied. Like many cravings, the craving of the Israelites is shown by YHVH to have no real end. Craving, unlike wholesome desire, is never satisfied as it is not about the object of craving but about the fear that drives the craving. Eventually YHVH sends a plague that infects the cravers and they die and the place where this incident occurred is named Kivrot Ha’Ta’avah, Graves of Craving.

I understand this plague as a teaching on the nature of craving. On a basic level we understand craving as that which arises out of a feeling of dissatisfaction and a lack of gratitude for the abundance in one’s life. The Israelites who experienced this craving for meat were not satisfied with the miraculous free food they received each day. They appear to have lost their connection to the abundance of food, as well as the protection and spirituality that YHVH was providing in the wilderness. Their craving blinds them to all the beauty and love that is in the world.

Each morning our davening begins with giving thanks for our bodies and our souls, and the beautiful world we wake up to each day.  “Ben Zoma said…who is rich, one who is joyful with his portion.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

Yet despite our reciting of morning prayers and the teachings of our ancestors, dissatisfaction and craving persists. The deadly results of the cravings of the Israelites is mirrored in our world today in the suffering that results from the pursuit of unquenchable desires for perfect bodies, more and more material success, and the pain in the lives of those addicted to drugs and alcohol to name a few.

In both Buddhist and Jewish teachings the importance of paying attention not to the objects of our craving but to craving itself is seen as the path towards liberation. The Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein speaks about paying attention to moments of non-craving when we feel a sense of ease and presence which result in openness to love and compassion.

Jack Kornfield reflects on moving from the contracted experience of craving to an open awareness of the world:

“For me, letting go of wanting and opening to the rhythms of the rain showers and the cries of the wildfowl during my time in the forest monastery helped me learn to experience abundance. Students of mindfulness experience the same openness when they leave a meditation retreat. They enter the supermarkets we usually take for granted, and stand there smiling at the wildest abundance of food ever presented to an ancient emperor. ” [1]

The founder of Hasidism, R. Israel ben Eliezer (18th Century), known as The Ba’al Shem Tov understands that the cravings themselves need to be buried. His grandson, R. Chaim Epraim of Sudylkov, author of Degel Mahane Ephraim, quotes the Ba’al Shem Tov:

“. . . Kivrot-HaTa’avah, this is the aspect of wisdom, for there the people buried their cravings. The explanation is that anyone who attains the quality of wisdom can thus make as nothing all of their cravings, from the greatness of his/ her cleaving to the Holy One of Blessed Name.” [2]

The Ba’al Shem Tov reads ‘Graves of Cravings’ as saying literally that the cravings themselves were buried. The quality of wisdom that the Ba’al Shem Tov refers to is from devekut, becoming closer to YHVH, and this experience of feeling the Divine Presence will bury our cravings. Thus, it is not the willpower to overcome a particular craving but to live a life of fostering and allowing religious spirit to fill us.

In my meditation practice I have been taught to witness the continual flow of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that come up as I sit and try to pay attention to my breath. Sometimes the full array of cravings and lusts pass through my mind and emotions. Through the meditative experience we can learn about the continual changing nature of all cravings and lusts. Rather than grasping on to a particular craving, we are to see that our craving passes when we do not attach ourselves to it. We also learn there is no ending to craving, for the satisfaction we think we will experience when we fulfill our craving is short lived and we will begin to crave once again. The goal of practice I believe is to accept that our cravings exist and yet not be controlled by them.

The Israelites problem was not the cravings for meat but their losing touch with the cravings of their soul. Moses responds to the crying out of the Israelites for meat by speaking to YHVH about his frustration with the complaining people. YHVH responds by imbuing prophetic spirit/ecstasy with a group of 70 elders. Eldad and Medad, speak in prophetic spirit/ecstasy outside of the larger group and the people complain. Moses responds,

“Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all YHVH’s people be prophets, that YHVH put [the divine] spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)

The Torah contrasts craving with the experience of being filled with closeness to the Divine. Instead of wishing for more suffering from our insatiable desire, Moses would prefer that all of us become filled with the spirit of YHVH. May it be so for all of us.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Kornfield, Jack, The Wise Heart. Bantam Books, 2008. Page 198

[2] In Blog Post by Eliezer ben Philly on Word Press


Rabbi Steven Altarescu (AJR 2014) served as co-rabbi with his wife Rabbi Laurie Levy (AJR 2015) at the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley from 2014- 2020. He is a Board Certified Chaplain who has worked at Westchester Medical Center and Northern Westchester Hospital. He is developing his meditation practice and studying painting and mixed media art at the Art Students League and chasing after his four young granddaughters.