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Graves of craving

06/09/2011

This morning, a section from this week’s Torah portion hit me between the eyes:

Then God came down in a cloud and spoke to Moses, who drew upon the Spirit that was on him and put it upon the 70 elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them. They spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue. Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, remained in the camp. The Spirit rested upon them… and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting like prophets in the camp!” And Joshua spoke up and said, “Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you wroth on my account? Would that all God’s people were prophets, with God’s spirit on them!”

And the very next verses:

A wind from God started up, brought in quail from the sea and deposited them over the camp… some two cubits deep on the ground. The people set to gathering quail all that day and night and all the next day…  The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of God blazed forth against the people and God struck the people with a very severe plague.

Recap:

  1. All the elders were blessed with a piece of God’s spirit, but only 2 were willing to show their ecstasy out loud.
  2. This freaked out Joshua, who ratted them out to Moses.
  3. Moses said: Dude, this is what it is all about! This ecstasy, this Spirit let loose in the world! (How else would we have poetry & mathematics & invention?)
  4. Then: a wild wind and lots of quail.
  5. The people went crazy, gorged themselves beyond what they needed (or even wanted).
  6. God provided this lesson: such behavior — gluttony, greed, unbridled desire — will bring an early grave.

Ecstasy (read: desire for connection, mystery, transcendence) is good. Craving (read: inattentive, self-satisfied desire) is a problem. I don’t claim to reliably be able to tell the difference. The line between one and other is often fuzzy and faint, thus providing fabulous fodder for the arts (think: Tolstoy or Caravaggio). On the other hand, I know it when I see such craving writ large, i.e., when someone is making a total fool pig of him or herself with food, drink, sex, consumerism, etc. When the impulse toward ecstasy is confused with the impulse towards slavish desire, broadly defined.

Here are some someones in Column B:

Understand that I say this with total sympathy for how things can get out of control. This, perhaps, is the risk of being imbued with the Spirit: like power, it is neutral, awaiting our alchemy. It can kill us and it can thrill us and make us dance in joy. Dangerous. Amazing. God-given.

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