Parashat B'ha'alotkha

Leaving Childhood Behind

The specific complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness illustrate their inability to develop mature, adult relationships.

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"And they become one flesh," according to the Rabbis, refers not only to this new-found intimacy, but is also a reference to the new life, the child, who is created by this union, which, in fact, makes the transition from childhood to adulthood complete; one leaves behind being a child by becoming a parent.

The People of Israel in the desert were infantile; craving the food of the nation's 'childhood' in Egypt, complaining about the food that they now had to go and get themselves, and whose taste they had to invent through a creative act of the imagination. They preferred, instead, to simply nostalgically remember and re-experience the tastes and sensations of their infancy, the food the Egyptians gave to them "free"--i.e., like babies, fed to them by an all-powerful "parent," as passive, rather than active recipients.

This mind-set, the Rabbis tell us, is consistent with incest; a clinging to the intimacies of one's infancy, rather than moving forward to create new, adult intimacies, new relationships, out of which are created new human beings, new families. Incest, in this understanding, is about not being able to grow out of the relationships that we are born into, not being able to grow beyond the sensations and interactions we experienced as children. Incest is a failure of the imagination, a failure to look beyond our childhood, which is our first experience of love, intimacy, and relationship, to the possibility of leaving that behind in order to create a new set of relationships, and, ultimately, new life.

It is appropriate, therefore, that God withheld from the Jewish people the ability to imagine that the manna tastes like foods that are bad for nursing babies. The message behind that is clear--it is time to give up what you 'ate' (experienced, felt, loved) as a child, and to 'eat' like an adult, i.e., that which is a product of your own active imagination, and which will nourish your own children. Your expectations of physical sensation and pleasure should not hark back to your infantile experiences of them, but, rather, should be part of an active attempt to leave them behind, to stop being a child and become a parent.

The message for the growth and maturation of the nation, as well as for us as individuals, is clear.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.