I remember my prom night well: I spent it locked up in the principal’s office. I was placed there after being apprehended while trying to sabotage the school’s public announcement system during the principal’s farewell address. Later, when the principal, a pasty and soft-spoken pedagogue of German extraction, asked why I did it, I unleashed the hounds of my foggy adolescent psyche. I said sharp words about Lenin and Lennon, spoke of equality and fraternity and free will, and generally sounded as sweetly obnoxious as only a sincere seventeen-year-old with good intentions, bad skin, and no clue could.
I also remember my twenty-second birthday: I spent it locked up in the back of a police van. I was placed there after being apprehended while blocking one of Tel Aviv’s major traffic arteries, protesting with dozens of my friends the government’s refusal to institute student loan programs, subsidize tuition for needy students, or do anything else to halt the rapidly plummeting rate of college graduation. Five years older and just a touch smoother, I still screamed many of the same slogans. I was drenched with sweat and flushed with hope. I didn’t really care what happened in the end; all that mattered was that I had tried to make a difference.
It’s been nearly a decade, and with one brief exception involving tequila and a faulty stall in a downtown bar’s men’s room, I haven’t been locked anywhere since. I am relieved by that fact, of course—my instinct and my intellect have both matured, and I have since learned that the subtle and the sublime needn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive. But a part of me, throbbing and restless, can’t help but feel cheated. In rage, there was purpose; in disobedience, life.
That particular feeling bubbled within this week, as I read the accounts of New York’s Internet Week, a bacchanal of twitterers and text-messengers, the people of the Facebook and the Friendfeed. They were blogging about each other, these radiant youths, posting photos of parties and exchanging witticisms in 140 characters or less. They were speaking their own cryptic tongue, the language of the hash tag and the squee. And for a brief moment there, I felt the urge to break out and do something non-violent that might get me locked up again. I wanted to scream at the crowds of techolytes huddled in the bars of the Lower East Side, clad in ironic t-shirts and vintage dresses and a fake, facile manner crafted in so many chatrooms. I wanted to take away their microbrewery beers and hacked iPhones and tell them that they were wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent people currently wasting genocidal amounts of creative energy live-blogging the season premiere of Top Chef Masters instead of trying to somehow change the world. I wanted to shout at them like I did at my timid principal nearly two decades ago, and speak to them of all the beautifully hopeless and thoroughly inspiring ideals in the world. Instead, I did nothing. I flipped my laptop shut, read a book, and felt like an aged man who time had mugged and left for dead.
The paragraph above, naturally, is rich with stereotype. Nascent technologies, of course, have given an army of impassioned activists the tools to influence the agnostic and organize the likeminded. Not all webutantes, as they are sometimes called, are vapid creatures who see the Web as a Cosmos-sized mirror reflecting their own vanity. And there is, to be sure, a healthy measure of audacity in writing harshly about the Internet on a web-based magazine that was gloriously born this week and received an ecstatic group hug from many kind and generous souls online. For all of those reasons, I will speak of the Internet no more, but of this week’s parasha.
It begins with hordes of hungry Hebrews. “Who,” they petulantly demand of Moses, “will feed us meat?” Then, sounding like some of the cooking contestant on Top Chef, the Israelites sing of culinary treats past: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge,” they said, neglecting to mention that small bit about being enslaved, “the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
All this talk of food makes Moses angry. More into the spirit than the stomach, he wonders aloud why he had been punished with leading such a nasty nation. “Why have You treated Your servant so badly?” he demands of God. “Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers?” If the burdens of the bitching Jews continue, Moses concludes, he’d be better off dead: “If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.”
God acquiesces. He orders Moses to take seventy elders to the Tent of Meeting, where they would receive the word of God and share Moses’s terrible burden of being the only living man to regularly chat with the Creator of all things. The elders are gathered and transported to the holy of the holies. Then, however, trouble erupts. Eldad and Meidad, two young lads, feel the spirit of God descending upon them. And they begin to prophesy, in defiance of the religious hierarchy and the rules of the priests.
As some readers may remember from the unpleasant incident with the Golden Calf, Moses, for all of his many virtues, was not one for tolerating dissent. When his leadership was questioned or his beliefs challenged, he called on the Levites—like ancient, bearded ninjas—to draw swords and settle scores. Joshua, Moses’s young apprentice, knows that; as soon as he spots the prophesying, he runs to his master, reports Eldad and Meidad’s transgressions, and expects swift and violent orders, deploring Moses to imprison the two offenders.
But the old man is jubilant. “Are you zealous for my sake?” he scolds his young aide. “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”
If only all the Lord’s people were prophets. Needless to say, they’re not. Just as Eldad and Meidad conclude their transcendental trip, God decides to relieve Moses’s dolor by raining quail from the heavens, asking only, like a divine Surgeon General, that folks eat in moderation. The Israelites, however, remain true to their bad reputation, and horde the birds, each man carrying his own weight in game. This vision of insolence and greed makes the lord angry, and he strikes the hapless Hebrews, the meat still stuck in their teeth, with “a very mighty blow.”
“He named that place Kivroth Hata’avah [Graves of Craving],” the Bible tells us, “for there they buried the people who craved.”
The people who craved were smitten. The people who prophesied were celebrated. Those who scattered about, infatuated with ephemera, left behind them no mark. Those who risked all for the sake of the spirit remain two of Judaism most revered rebels. God himself made it clear that sometimes we would do well to drop the petty concerns of our mundane lives and speak, like teenagers, with much passion and little sense, about the stirrings of the soul.
These are all great lines. I hope I remember them next time I get locked up.