When depressed Moshe pulled back from brink


One of the disturbing episodes in Beha’alotcha, this week’s parsha, concerns the people who are complaining about the manna, bemoaning a lack of meat as they remember the fish, fruits and vegetables (cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic) they enjoyed in Egypt.

Now, it is one thing to complain. It is an entirely other thing to whine and kick and scream, crying hunger, when hunger was not the problem. After all, while they may have been tired of it, the manna was bread from heaven that allowed them to survive for 40 years in the wilderness, beyond the simple grace of G-d.

Nevertheless, Moshe’s reaction seems so out of character that we begin to wonder if he has snapped.

Moshe says to G-d:

Why have you been bad to Your servant, and why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You put the burden of this people upon me? Did I conceive this nation, did I give birth to it, that you expect me to carry it as a nursing mother carries its babe? From where am I to find meat for everyone, as they cry out to me for meat? I can’t carry this nation by myself! If this is what you are going to do to me, then kill me now, lest I see the evil that befalls me. (11:11-15)

I won’t jump so far to say that Moshe was suicidal — were that the case, this might have ended differently — but there is strong evidence from the things he says here that he was ready to surrender his role as leader simply on account of the complaints of the people.

There are a number of components to Moshe’s complaint. Let’s focus our attention on two of them: 1. Moshe complains that he hasn’t found favor in G-d’s eyes. 2. He wonders if he is to carry the nation by himself, without help.

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Some of the commentaries (Ibn Ezra, Seforno, etc.) claim that Moshe is referencing how he has not found favor in G-d’s eyes since the burning bush, when he asked for G-d to send someone else to be the Redeemer. It is hard to reconcile this claim, considering all the good that has been bestowed upon him. Could Moshe be exaggerating?

What is amazing is that while G-d responds to most of Moshe’s concerns in the section which follows — Seventy elders (you won’t be alone), they’ll have meat (and fish, if necessary) — He does not refute or respond to Moshe’s claim of not having found favor in G-d’s eyes.

Through Moshe’s demonstration of despair, and without a real response from G-d, there are important lessons to be taken from how Moshe pulls through this seeming moment of Depression, which even leads him to want to die.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik noted that Moshe’s discovered here was that he had to be the nursing father to the people, in addition to their teacher. There may be two important take-home lessons that the Torah teaches us through saying nothing.

First, that a person must have a sense of purpose. When Moshe realized his role as teacher was no longer “the” challenge of his life, and he was able to embrace his new role as nursing father, it became a new lease on life.

And in all of Moshe’s challenges in the coming Torah portions, how many parents can look at Moshe’s relationship with the people and relate heavily to his exasperations? “Stop complaining! You have all you need! Stop asking for things which you ‘want’ but are unnecessary to your survival! There are children starving in Africa!”

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Moshe’s seeming depression is a harder answer. One can’t simply tell someone with depression to “get over it.” But people with depression can be encouraged to find the strength within themselves to find the help they need.

Maybe G-d ignored Moshe because He knew that Moshe had that strength, and that Moshe just needed his other concerns to be addressed, and that once he saw he was not alone and that the people could be provided for irrespective of his role, he no longer wished to die.

May those who suffer from such feelings of inadequacies be blessed to find comfort in the friends and loved ones they have. May all of us be blessed to find a sense of purpose for our existence, so every day can be embraced for the challenges and blessings that it lays out in front of us.

Rabbi Avi Billet, originally from the Five Towns, is a mohel and the spiritual leader of Anshei Chesed  Congregation in Boynton Beach. A version of this column was previously published.