The perfect food

Delusional memories, tepid defense.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 15:48

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

In this week’s Torah portion, we are witness to the beginning of a horrible downward spiral by the Jewish people. A series of complaints, rebellions, and other disappointing sins dominate many of the storylines in this and upcoming weeks. One of those grievances concerned the manna (Bamidbar 11:4):

“But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings [hitavu taava]. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat?”

What are these “strong cravings”, the seeming kernels of this protest?

The Torah continues (ibid 5-6):

“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.”

The memories of Egypt are quite delusional, as a life of slavery and bondage does not bring with it the delicacies described above. However, it is the contrast between these imagined foods and the manna that is truly striking. The objectors seem to be concerned with the culinary regularity of the manna. Where was the variety? As Rashi notes, it was manna in the morning and manna in the evening. Is a plea for variety deserving of harsh retribution? It would appear so, as we see a few verses later both God and Moshe responding in anger to the complains of the Jewish people.

And therein lies the odd part of this story. Rather than move to the reactions of God and Moshe, the Torah offers a concise description of the manna (ibid 7-9):

“Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance was like the appearance of crystal. The people walked about and gathered it. Then they ground it in a mill or crushed it in a mortar, cooked it in a pot and made it into cakes. It had a taste like the taste of oil cake. When the dew descended on the camp at night, the manna would descend upon it.”

To sum it up: the physical description and method of preparation is laid out in detail. As well, we are told the manna tasted like “oil cake”. Finally, there would appear to be an allusion to the supernatural aspect of the manna, as it presented itself day in and day out.

Why does the Torah take this tangent?

Rashi, citing Sifrei, offers a fairly intuitive explanation:

“The one who said this [verse] did not say that. The Israelites said, “We have nothing but manna to look at,” whereas the Holy One, blessed is He, inscribed in the Torah, “the manna was like coriander seed…” as if to say,“See, all you who inhabit the world, what my children are complaining about-the manna is excellent in so many ways!”

God is offering a defense of the manna. The Jewish people condemned the manna. God takes on the mantle of attorney, and proceeds to excoriate the mistaken view of those complaining.

Does He do an able job? In truth, the defense seems quite tepid. The descriptions of the manna are underwhelming. It had a nice appearance; but, so do many other foods. It needed to be collected and then transformed into the final product; sounds a lot like bread. The last verse, at least, points to the fact it was always available. One could conceivably argue that this justification was less then compelling.

Rashbam adds another angle to the above problem. He notes that in the above verses, the manna is described as requiring processing, resulting in an oily cake taste. In Parshat Beshalach, when we are first introduced to the manna, there is no mention of any processing; the taste is noted as being like honey. When in the hard, seed form, the manna was like wheat kernels, but it tasted quite sweet. Being hard, though, was a drawback. When converting it into cake form, where the substance was now more palatable, the taste seemed to take a hit, becoming oilier. The discrepancy, as Rashbam notes, was a source of God’s wrath.

Rashi and Rashbam are pointing us in a specific direction. The defense of the manna should not be viewed as a pause in the narrative; rather, God is exposing one of the critical flaws responsible for the development of the complaint. Among the many astonishing miracles dominating the sojourn through the desert, the manna was certainly one that stands out.

The necessity of having a food source for the Jewish people was critical. A recurring food was a critical component of the Divine plan. Unfortunately, God’s objective did not converge with the Jewish people’s reaction to the manna. The Jewish people surely were “impressed” with the miraculous nature of the manna. However, their expectations were that this food, if indeed being Divine in origin, should be perfect. What would the perfect food be? For those in the desert, it would be filled with variety, delicacies abounding. The food would be luxurious in nature, the best the physical world would have to offer. After all, if this was Divine food, how could it be anything less than what humanity would project as the greatest culinary experience possible? The Torah sees this as “hitavu taava”. Those involved in this complaint related to the manna as a source of instinctual gratification. As Rashbam notes, the food was never “perfect” to the Jewish people. The idea he is revealing is that no matter what was done to the manna, it would never be satisfactory. When viewing the manna through this lens, the Divine food was subpar, to say the least.

God’s objective with the manna is exactly how He describes it in those intermediary verses. The manna served a simple purpose – to provide a means of sustenance, allowing the Jewish people to turn their securities towards God. The Jewish people were “in training” in the desert, as the ideology of Judaism was being infused into the nation. The Torah emphasizes the idea of balancing between our physical needs and the perfection we can achieve through adhering to the commandments. Manna was supposed to serve as the catalyst to the entire approach. The manna was not a magic pill. It looked like food, it required processing like many foods. It was available all the time, the result of Divine Providence. Manna as presented was an opportunity for the Jewish people to outgrow the distorted view towards instinctual gratification, and relate to the food as a vehicle of growth. Manna was the perfect food, perfect for creating God’s nation. It is unfortunate that the Jewish people were unable to capitalize on this tremendous opportunity.

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