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Meat & Atzilut

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Can an indulgent person connect to G-d?
Can people with material desires and cravings integrate with the Divine?
Can a carnivore be redeemed?

On a more sublime note:
Can spirit and matter truly be fused?
Can a finite universe contain the infinite?

And finally:
Jewish mysticism talks about the cosmic world of Atzilut. What is the world about and why do we need it? How would existence – and our lives – be different – if there were no Atzilut? (This last question may not bother you as much as the previous ones, but you will see how this question lies at the heart of the others. Read on).

These questions are all answered is in a strange episode in this week’s Torah portion.

The people are not happy with the food G-d provided them and they demand meat. In the wilderness they were eating the manna, ‘bread from heaven.’ They now begin to weep: “Who’s going to give us some meat to eat? We fondly remember the fish that we could eat in Egypt at no cost, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now our spirits are dried up, with nothing but the manna before our eyes.”

Hearing the weeping people, Moses cries to G-d: “Why are you treating me so badly?… Why do You place such a burden upon me? Was I [the mother] pregnant with this nation? Did I give birth to them? Yet You told me [that I must] carry them in my bosom, as a nurse carries an infant to the land that You promised to their ancestors.

“From where should I have meat to give all these people? I cannot be responsible for this entire nation! It’s too hard for me! If you are going to do this to me, please kill me…”

G-d replies: “Assemble seventy of Israel’s elders… bring them to the Communion Tent [in the Sanctuary]… I will descend and speak with you there and I will impart [emanate] from the spirit upon you, and I will bestow it upon them. They will then bear with you the responsibility of the nation, and you will not have to bear it all alone.

“And tell the people as follows: ‘Prepare yourselves for tomorrow, for you will then have meat to eat… You will eat it not for one day, not for two days, not for five days, not for ten days, and not for twenty days. But for a full month, until it is coming out of your nose and making you nauseated. This is because you rejected G-d Who is among you, and you whined before Him, “why did we ever leave Egypt?’”

Moses then asks G-d: How will there ever be enough meat to feed the nation for an entire month? “Even if all the cattle and sheep were slaughtered, could there be enough for them? If all the fish in the sea were caught, would it be sufficient?”

G-d replies: “Has my power become limited. You will now see whether or not My word will come true.”

The story continues. Moses shares G-d’s words with the people. Moses then gathers the seventy elders, G-d descends in a cloud and speaks to Moses, and He causes the spirit upon Moses to emanate, and He bestows it upon the seventy elders. This causes them to gain the gift of prophecy which remains with them. Moses then wishes that G-d grant His sprit to all the people.

Then G-d causes a wind to blow, sweeping quail up from the sea, which provides meat for the people. With the meat still between their teeth, the people begin to die. This place is named Kivroth HaTaavah, Graves of Craving, for in this place the people who had these cravings [for meat] were buried.

The entire story is bizarre from beginning to end, and from all perspectives – the people, Moses and G-d.

The entire story is bizarre from beginning to end, and from all perspectives – the people, Moses and G-d:

The Jewish people were not small people; they were the most enlightened generation of all time – a dor de’eh (knowledgeable generation). They were highly evolved and sophisticated. How then did such great people stoop to a petty craving for… meat?!

The nation had just witnessed the greatest miracles in history – the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the sea. Before that they had endured for 210 years the most terrible bondage and genocide, and prevailed. A mere eleven months ago they had experienced the greatest revelation of all time – the giving of Torah at Sinai – the single most powerful document in history, one that lays out the moral and spiritual blueprint for all ages.

Now, these enlightened children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have nothing better to be concerned with than eating meat?!

And the Torah finds this story important enough to document for all time! Even if there is some reason why they craved meat, why do we need to know about this obsession today?

Equally puzzling is Moses’ reaction. Moses had been through the worst situations – he had confronted Pharaoh and the Egyptians and prevailed; he faced the sea and Amalek and prevailed; he had even confronted G-d to forgive the people after the Golden Calf and prevailed. Moses had received the Torah and spoken to G-d ‘face to face.’ After all that Moses personally experienced, after all he had seen and accomplished as a true leader, now when he hears that the Jewish people desire meat, he suddenly feels that he cannot carry the burden??!!

He could handle Pharaoh, Amalek, all the challenges, but he can’t handle finding… meat! And as a result, he asks that he be killed!

Furthermore, if the people’s request for meat is evil – angering G-d – why does his inability to provide it for them cause Moses so much grief?

And then when G-d promises him that he will provide meat, how does Moses question G-d’s ability to do so?! Had Moses not seen greater miracles? Moreover, there are millions and millions of people in the world eating meat, how can Moses wonder that ‘all the cattle and sheep’ will not be enough? And why does he add the statement about fish, when the people never asked for fish?

Finally, G-d’s response is completely incomprehensible. If the people’s craving for meat is sinful, why give them meat in the first place?! G-d should simply reject the request, and punish the people if He so wishes.

Above all, if this obsession with meat is simply their failing, why does G-d go through an elaborate process of emanating from the spirit on Moses to the seventy elders, so that they can help Moses bear the responsibility of the nation?!

All these questions clearly demonstrate that the people’s request for meat is not a simple matter, but carries a much deeper message.

Here’s the story in brief:

After the Jewish nation were freed from Egypt and received the Torah at Sinai, they came to realize the ultimate purpose of existence: To marry heaven and earth, and fuse spirit and matter – to transform the material universe into a home for G-d. This was then consummated in the building of the Sanctuary – take your physical materials and “build for me a Mikdash (a sacred home), and I will rest among you.”

They came to realize the ultimate purpose of existence: To marry heaven and earth, and fuse spirit and matter.

The people understood that their journey in the wilderness – and all the miracles that provided for their survival – was merely a preparation to bring them into the Promised Land, where they would need to toil the land, in a natural setting, and transform it into a sacred place.

This however posed a major philosophical and psychological quandary: It makes sense that we can be spiritual while we are insulated in the wilderness, protected by G-d’s miracles, eating ‘bread from heaven,’ drinking from Miriam’s well, surrounded by the Divine clouds of glory. But how can we expect to maintain spiritual integrity, let alone fuse spirit and matter, when we will be thrown into the gross, material world – a ‘land that consumes its inhabitants’ (as the scouts would argue in next week’s portion), with all its greed and cruelty, with all its temptations, desires and cravings? Is it possible to bridge the secular and the sacred when we find ourselves outside of a spiritual oasis?!

This is why the people requested meat, not because they suddenly got hungry, but because it represented for them life as it would be lived in the ‘real world,’ and they wanted to know and experience how they would be able to integrate a carnivorous world with G-dliness.

Their sin was not the request for meat; it was their obsessive ‘craving’ for meat. If you read the verse closely, you see that the story begins with strong cravings of the ‘the mixed multitude’ [‘ha’asfsuf,’ or as they are called elsewhere ‘erev rav,’ a mixture of idolatrous nations, who instigated many problems in the wilderness]. Only afterwards does it say that (this caused that) the Jewish people should also begin weeping and asking for meat.

The request for meat in itself was a positive request. [Even the craving for meat can be explained as a ‘craving’ for the spiritual sparks within the meat, as the Baal Shem Tov explains in various places]. Self-indulgence on the other hand is clearly self-destructive, as demonstrated by the fact that their indulgence in the meat was the cause of their demise. We always see that greed, lust and desire always end up consuming the person. Every addiction is bound to cause an overdose.

When Moses heard this request for meat he was distressed because he realized that their demand was justified. Moses, being the epitome of spirituality could not fathom how he could provide them with meat. If you ask me to bring them Your Torah – no problem. If you ask me to inspire them spiritually – no problem. If you ask me to be a tool for Your miracles – that I can do. But “from where should I have meat to give all these people?” “It’s too hard for me” – a spiritual leader – to give them physical meat, and bridge the two worlds. I cannot carry such a burden!

If my role as leader is to help the people fulfill the purpose of existence to fuse these two dichotomous worlds, it would be better to kill me – because I cannot serve as such a leader.

In response to this fundamental dilemma, G-d reveals a new dimension to Moses and the people. This dimension is called Atzilut. The world of Atzilut serves as an ‘intermediary’ between the Divine and the universe. Jewish mysticism elaborates on the paradoxical nature of Atzilut. On one hand, Atzilut is the world of Divine emanation; it is not a creation, but a manifested extension of the Divine. The ten spheres of Atzilut – both the energies and the containers – are one with the Divine. On the other hand, Atzilut is not how G-d is in His Essence, beyond any definition. Atzilut is G-dliness – how G-d manifests Himself in definition, but not G-d Himself.

The human being was created in the “Divine Image.” We all know that G-d transcends and defies an image. What then is the “Divine Image?” Kabbalah and Chassidus explain that this is how G-d manifests Himself in the image of a ‘supernal man’—the world of Atzilut. Atzilut is the quintessential nature and essence of all of existence.

The role of this paradoxical world is to bridge the human and the Divine, the secular and the sacred, the finite and the infinite. If there were no Atzilut, we would be unable to integrate (with our logical tools) our defined structures with the Divine. They would remain two mutually exclusive domains. Atzilut – the G-dliness within definition – is the intersection in the cosmic order where heaven meets earth.

The emanation of Atzilut – which extends the spirit of Moses and bestows it on lower levels – allows Moses to carry the burden of leading the people in fulfilling their mission of fusing matter and spirit.

One can say that Atzilut reveals a deeper dimension within G-d – the power to manifest in the finite. As the Kabbalist Ibn Gabbai writes (in his Avodat HaKodesh): “Just as G-d has the power of the infinite, He also has the power of the finite. If one were to say otherwise, one would be limiting G-d’s completeness.” When Moses asks G-d how there will be enough meat for all the people, he is not wondering about the physical amount of meat (of course G-d can provide meat for everyone); he is questioning the ability to unite the finite world of meat and the infinite. To this G-d replies: “Has my power become limited?” – Am I limited by the fact that I cannot manifest in the finite? Definitely not! G-d can manifest in the finite just as He can in the infinite. Because G-d transcends both.

Our role is to align our lives, our parameters and structures, with the Divine parameters of Atzilut. We align our wisdom (Chochma) with the wisdom of G-d as it is Atzilut, we align our love (chesed) with chesed of Atzilut (and the same with all the ten human faculties, that evolve from the ten Divine spheres of Atzilut). And by doing so we integrate the ‘meat’ of our universe – and all its elements – with G-dliness.

Meat represents the ultimate physical food. In a broad sense it symbolizes the nature of the material world and all its parameters. Atzilut is the answer to the demand of the people for ‘meat’ – for a method of how to create a home for G-d in a world of meat and potatoes.

Obviously, this poses a risk and a challenge. By engaging the world of matter, we risk begin consumed by it. The challenge we have is to immerse into the material world, without indulging in it. To enter the physical life – to consume meat and partake in the other aspects of physical life – and not be seduced by it. We must not allow ourselves to be reduced to the obsessions of human cravings and desires. Natural desires, yes. But not an overdose of self-indulgence.

We must sublimate and elevate the ‘meat’ of the world – and our desire for it – into a channel and vehicle for the sacred and Divine, until we transform the entire universe into a home for G-d. [1]

[Sources: The Chassidic discourses on this chapter in Likkutei Torah, Maamorei Admur HoEmtzoei and Ohr HaTorah. Likkutei Sichos vol. 4 pp. 1108. For an English adaptation click here Meat].


[1] One of the ways we do this is by eating fish before we eat meat in our meals. Fish – creatures of the sea – represent the hidden worlds of the Divine. Fish are always immersed in their sustenance; they are aware that their existence is dependent on their source (water). Unlike meat that comes from land animals, disconnected from their source. Fish are therefore more conducive to sublimating our meal. By eating fish first, we then have the power to refine and elevate the more coarse and potentially self-indulgent meat. This is why Moses added fish, even though the Jews had only requested meat.

Yet, from Moses perspective, even sublime fish are removed from the ultimate of the Divine. Atzilut however bridges the gap.

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