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Parshas Behaaloscha: Overcoming Negativity Bias

Perhaps the holiest generation of Jews, the Dor HaMidbar, infamously tested Hashem ten times over the course of their forty-year sojourn in the desert. Two of those occasions appear in our Parsha, Behaaloscha: the incident of the Misoninim (11:1-3), followed by the complaints about the Mann by the Eiruv Rav that resulted in Hashem sending the Slav (11:4-34). These sins must be studied with sensitivity, humility, and a fundamental recognition of the Dor HaMidbar’s righteousness. It is in the context of their greatness that the people are held accountable for their complaints against Hashem. Speaking for myself, I complain all too often about various things that happen to me, all of which are preordained by HaKadosh Baruch Hu. As such, even as we assess these incidents further to understand what occurred and seek to learn from them, we must keep this in mind.

Following the devastating Heavenly fire that consumed the Misoninim at Taveirah, the Eiruv Rav (called the “asafsuf” in the Pasuk 11:4) incited the people to complain about not having meat to eat. The Pasuk describes how the Eiruv Rav “hisavu ta’avah,” were overcome by a gluttonous desire [for meat], “Va’yivku gam Bnei Yisrael va’yomru, mi ya’achileinu basar!?” and the rest of Bnei Yisrael similarly became distressed and complained about not having meat to eat (11:4). Furthermore, they lamented the fish they used to eat “for free” in Egypt, as well as the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they used to eat (11:5). “V’atah nafsheinu yivesha,” and now our stomachs are shriveled, they cry, “ain kol bilti el ha’man einenu,” and we see nothing but this Mann that we eat day and night (11:6).

Klal Yisrael’s complaints are particularly striking given what we know about the miraculous manner in which Hashem took care of the nation’s needs in the desert. The Mann was divinely designed to not only nourish the people, but also to vary based on what the person eating it desired it to taste like (Rashi, 11:8). It fell daily, reliably, except for Shabbos when a double portion fell on Friday. It was “packaged” by the dew it fell with each day and collecting the Mann did not cause the people to exert any extra effort (Rashi 11:8) - they barely had to lift a finger, and the Mann contained all the nutrients they needed to stay healthy. Additionally, as Rashi points out, Bnei Yisrael did in fact have meat - they left Egypt with livestock! Their complaints seem even more strange when one considers what they used to eat in Egypt. It is clear that, as slaves, they were not receiving free fish!

Moreover, it is interesting to note that aside from meat, the five foods Bnei Yisrael bemoaned lacking (cucumbers, melons, leeks, garlic, and onions) were five things the Mann couldn’t taste like because they are harmful for nursing mothers (Rashi 11:5). This seems to be a favor that Hashem was doing for Klal Yisrael, not a disservice! And, even if there were five vegetables the Mann could not taste like – that’s only five tastes not on the menu!

How can we understand the nature of Bnei Yisrael’s complaints?

There is a psychological reality to the way we see the world. More often than not, we tend to overfocus on the negative, remember upsetting things that have happened more than the positive events that have occurred, and even make decisions based on fears of undesired outcomes rather than on potential good outcomes. Researchers and cognitive scientists call this phenomenon negativity bias[1]. It is an automatic process that occurs in our brains, meant to help us stay away from danger, learn from our mistakes, and protect ourselves from potential losses we might incur or even from people who may harm us.

Developmentally, it makes sense that the negativity bias would be maintained in the human psyche. It is something that happens without our overt awareness and outside of our conscious control, but it happens. While it may help us be motivated to seek out better things in life, to learn from past experiences, and to dissect where things went wrong, it also affects how we view other people, distorts our perspective on our own lives and the moments life is made up of, and can cause us to make further mistakes when making decisions.

The negativity bias often trips us up and causes us to get in our own way. When we’ve had a great day, but get in an argument with a loved one, we may ruminate most about that argument, discounting whatever else went exceptionally well for us that day. If our spouse, friend, or child does something that upsets us, negativity bias is what makes it hard to remember and call to mind the positives about that person that endear them to us. When we’re making an important decision that could have some negative results or shortcomings, we tend to overfocus on those aspects rather than accurately seeing the whole picture of the various pros and cons on both sides of the decision.

It seems from a careful reading of the Pesukim that this may be what befell Klal Yisrael and triggered their complaints. Negativity bias could cause one to overfocus on what one does not have, rather than all the blessings that one does have. It could explain Bnei Yisrael’s complaining about the five tastes the Mann did not provide and disregarding the miracle of everything it did taste like and the fact that even the ways in which the Mann appeared lacking were also for their benefit. Perhaps their distorted complaint about not having meat was also a manifestation of this bias, focusing on the fact that they did not have an abundance of various types of meat (like the Slav, quail, that would be sent as punishment). Further, Rashi notes that their nostalgia for the free fish in Egypt was clearly inaccurate and was actually merely a pretext for complaining about the Mann.

This negativity bias unfortunately seems to underlie multiple sins that Bnei Yisrael are guilty of in the desert. In next week’s Parsha, we will learn about the Meraglim similarly focusing on the negative aspects of Eretz Yisrael, its fruit, and its inhabitants, over and above all the blessings, miracles, and beauty they could have focused on. Throughout our Parshios, we see that Hashem reacts very strongly to these sins. Not because they were a personal affront to G-d, who takes painstaking care of Klal Yisrael, leaving no stone unturned and no need unattended and protects the Meraglim by distracting the Canaanim, but because these sins speak to the presence of this negativity bias, and which must be addressed.

Reducing the impact of negativity bias requires training ourselves to notice when it is activated, and intentionally pull our minds to the bigger picture. Thankfully, there are multiple Mitzvos we can lean on to help us with this. Focusing on not speaking Lashon Hara allows us to become more aware of when our minds are picking up on the flaws of others. Training ourselves to be happy with what we have means intentionally focusing on the blessings in our lives, which, given that we will also likely experience and at times focus on the negative, may help to balance our perspectives. Thanking Hashem in Modim each day is a perfect opportunity to train our mind to think about and reflect on the positives, which can help us achieve cognitive equilibrium when our tendency may be to ruminate on what is going wrong in our day to day.

This week, let us consider where negativity bias is coming up in our lives. In what ways are we focusing on the negative in other people, or in our own life circumstances? Let’s reflect on the ways in which we can balance out our negativity bias to help us see life – and Hashem’s constant care and love for us – more clearly and accurately.


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