Leaving Childhood Behind
The specific complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness illustrate their inability to develop mature, adult relationships.
The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.
In this week's parsha we have one of a number of stories in the Torah about the kvetching and complaining that the people of Israel were guilty of during the time they were in the Sinai desert, traveling from Egypt to Israel.
The story, in chapter 11 of Numbers, goes like this:
"And the riff-raff among them had a craving, a lusting, and again they wept, along with the people of Israel, and they said 'who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt, free; the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our souls are dry, there is nothing, all we see is this manna.'"
After this strange complaint (leeks? onions? garlic? And what kind of fish did the Egyptians give their slaves for free?), the Torah, in a pointed aside, extols the virtues of the manna that the Israelites so bitterly complained about: "Now the manna is like coriander seed and it looks like bdellium. The people would go out and collect it…its taste was like rich, moist oil…" This glowing description of the manna makes it difficult to understand what the Israelites were complaining about.
The Rabbis add to the problem by telling us that, in fact, the manna had the quality of tasting like whatever the eater imagined; ice cream, southern fried chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, whatever, which leads to the question--if that was the case, why didn't the Jews just imagine that the manna tasted like watermelons and cucumbers and all that other stuff from Egypt that they said they missed so much? The Rabbis, in a well-known answer, say that these particular foods, when eaten by nursing mothers, produce an unpleasant taste for their nursing babies, and therefore God, as a favor to the nurslings, did not allow the manna to taste like them. Later on, I am going to posit a somewhat different explanation.
We then return to the story, and are told that "Moshe heard the nation crying, by their families, each person at the opening of his tent, and God was very angry, and it looked bad to Moshe." Moshe then turns and complains to God: "…Did I conceive this entire nation? Did I give birth to it, that you should say to me, 'carry it in your bosom, as a nursing parent carries a suckling child, to the land that you promised to their forefathers?' Where am I going to get meat to give to this whole nation, for they are crying to me, saying 'give us meat, so we can eat!' …"
It really looks like Moshe has lost it! The imagery he uses--motherhood, nursing, crying children--is fascinating, and is even more so in the original Hebrew, in that Moshe uses some feminine language, which the Rabbis see as making him seem even more of a female, "mother" figure.