In this week’s Sidra, we are introduced to a place called Kivrot ha’Ta-avah. The name means something like: ‘the graves of desire.’
Its grim name reflects the reality it represents: the people had desired meat and their desire was met – but immediately thousands died in a plague and so, the Torah tells us, those who had craved for meat were buried there.
Yet when we look at the context of our Sidra, the graves of desire can be seen to mean something more. For desire is part of what it means to be human. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s fascinating commentary about the book of Genesis is called ‘The Beginnings of Desire.’ It relates the beginnings of humanity: the desire of Adam and Eve for each other as well as the developing relationship between human beings and God. Desire gives us the will to strive beyond ourselves – to reach out to other human beings, to build and to plant, to create a better world for ourselves and for those we love. Being a human emotion, it can lead to harm as well as good. For the Israelites in the desert, their desire for meat led them astray. But without desire, we cease to strive and our humanity is diminished. We no longer have a purpose and our lives lose their worth. Judaism does not teach that we suppress our most fundamental urges but rather that we should use them for good.
In this week’s Sidra, we see the beginnings of Israel’s loss of desire. In last week’s Sidra, they were mustered and brought offerings to the Sanctuary. All seemed to be going well as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. But things go downhill from this point on. The Israelites protest that they would like to return to the cucumbers and melons they claim to remember in Egypt. Even Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, complain to him. Next week, we read of the spies who are sent out to tour the land. They come back and report that it is a good and fruitful land but its inhabitants are fearsome and the Israelites will not be able to enter. The people are condemned to die in the desert and told that only their children will be able to enter the promised land. In future weeks, we will read of the rebellion of Korach, the idolatry instigated by Balaam and the death of many more Israelites through various punishments. The morale of the Israelites seems to sink deeper and deeper. They are apathetic and hopeless. Their desire is perverted to greed and lust and they appear to have no hope for a better future. Kivrot haTa’avah is indeed for them a place where their desire seems to be buried.
We, too, may experience times when our desire seems to be buried. We may have had experiences which make us feel hopeless and doubtful of the future. We may have been hurt, or regret lost opportunities and wish we could have done things differently. There may not even be a reason that we can define. In the middle of our Sidra, there is an episode which offers a different perspective from the sense of gloom elsewhere. At the time of the Passover, a year after the Exodus from Egypt, some men came to Moses to tell him that they were unable to keep the observance because they had been in contact with a corpse. Moses asked God for advice, and was told that they could celebrate the ritual in the following month instead. They were to be given another chance to experience the ritual of eating the Pesach sacrifice, a ritual that was central to being part of the Jewish people.
God seems to be assuring Moses that no-one should be excluded from special times. There will be missed opportunities, but there will also be times when we can make up for what we have lost. A Passover kept at a different time will not be the same. We cannot go back in time and change what has gone. But there will be new opportunities, times to celebrate in a way that is similar but different. Knowing that they could keep Passover at another time gave the men a sense that amends could be made and they could have a second chance. At times when life feels bleak, it can help to know that we can start again. The future is not mapped out by the past. We can rediscover what we had thought we had lost and find a new opportunity when an previous one has passed us by.
With new opportunities comes new hope and as hope awakes, so does desire – desire for life and all that it brings. The Israelites, too, found new hope. Their desire was not buried for ever. Eventually, towards the end of the Book of Numbers, they look back at their journeys and realise that they have come far and will be able to travel further until they are able at last to enter the Promised Land.
May we, too, when life seems bleak, find renewed hope and courage so that our desire may be renewed and we can continue our journey towards the promised land.