It seems to come from nowhere: a craving—perhaps to devour ice cream, to gossip, to mindlessly watch TV, to have sex, or to make fun of another person. Ah, it’s a long list—all the urges in our lives!
Sudden and strong impulses can be confusing. If what I long for may not itself be bad, then why deny it? Or, if my craving is in fact harmful, why do I feel like doing something I will regret later? On one hand, shouldn’t I celebrate my true feelings? On the other hand, shouldn’t I be ashamed of feeling this way?
A tale in Numbers chapter 11 may put our urges into perspective. There, the Israelites — recently escaped slaves — are on vacation. All their basic needs are met. Free meals. They don’t have to get up each morning and go to work or off to school. Yet the Israelites begin whining about food. They crave meat rather than manna; they yearn for variety in their diet: “Our lives are like a desert—there is nothing but this manna to look to!”
Like the Israelites, we contemporaries try hard to do our best, but we sometimes get distracted. We too have both exalted and humiliating moments. So we are not alone with our impulses. “I’m not the only one who gets cravings,” we realize. What a relief! Our ancestors felt this way too.
Craving may not be a measure of objective reality so much as it reflects an inner loss of balance. In our story, every single Israelite has enough to eat. And they own sheep, goats, and cattle—meat is available. Further, the Torah underscores that our forebears must work hard to find something to complain about. The text slips us some facts about manna, from which we learn that it was easy to spot, a cinch to harvest, required no cleaning or rinsing off, and tasted great. The Israelites have it made—yet for them, marvelous manna means misery! Rabban Gamliel II (3rd century) said it well: “The Israelite complaint was just a pretext; once Moses solved that problem, they would just complain about something else.”
So what are cravings about? I find a clue in our story’s text. Usually we read that the craving started with “the riffraff in the midst [of the people],” but that phrase can also be understood as “the accretion within [each person].” That is, craving may come from our own minds, yet it is not who we really are. Our irrational impulses are foreign to our nature.
In other words, what we crave may not actually be what we need; thus, getting it may bring short—term relief but it betrays our real selves. Indeed, when God allows the Israelites the opportunity to give in to their craving for meat, those who do so became critically ill from overeating. To “lose oneself” in one’s urge means indeed to lose one’s self.
Fortunately, we have a choice; we neither have to give ourselves over to the craving, nor do we have to pretend that we don’t feel its pull. Rather, we can notice it, own up to the feelings that come with it, and discuss it with others whom we trust — such as God. We can ask, “Is this a rational need?” (To discuss doesn’t mean to complain, for a complainant has already yielded to the urge.)
In our text, what the Israelites already have available to them is manna—of which there is always enough for everyone. This symbolizes the nature of spiritual reality. In short, what we have available to us is what we actually need: ample cause for awe and wonder, plus assurances that we are loved, that we belong, and that our actions do matter. “God gave you manna to eat, to teach you that humans live not only on food” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Ultimately, the answer to physical cravings may be spiritual sustenance.