Midway through this week’s Torah reading, the Israelites embark on their journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. However, they’ve barely started out when they stop in their tracks: “And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: ‘Would that we were given flesh to eat! We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for naught; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have naught save this manna to look to’” (Numbers 11:4-6).
The Children of Israel and the “mixed multitude,” or rabble, among them nostalgically recall culinary memories of life in Egypt. The range of foods then available to them has been replaced by manna, the miraculous food that God provides in the desert. The Israelites lament the monotony and limited range of food, and especially long for an era that has vanished. They lament the transformation they have undergone with their departure from Egypt and the start of their nomadic trek through the wilderness.
However, our sages, in the following homily, take these complaints and by means of a subtle displacement, change their focus entirely: “It is written, ‘We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for naught’ − but is it possible that the Egyptians gave them fish free of charge? After all, it is written in an earlier passage, ‘Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you’ (Exodus 5:18). If the Egyptians did not give the Israelites straw for free, is it logical that they gave them fish for free? Then what does the term ‘for naught’ refer to? It means free of, or exempt from, the commandments” (Sifre Bamidbar, section 86).
The sages relate here to the textual background of the Israelites’ complaints. The Israelites were not given for free the straw they needed to make the bricks they were ordered to produce for the Egyptians, so it isn’t logical that they were given fish “for naught.” Those words, say the sages, refer not to the price of the fish but rather to the Israelites’ commitment to God’s commandments. The Children of Israel recall how they once led a life that was free of those commandments. What they miss is not the fish in Egypt, rather their day-to-day existence there. “When we were in Egypt,” they are saying, in effect, “we consumed the fish without being bound by God’s commandments. But now we must eat them together with the commandments − we must be bound by these divine directives.”
It is not the liberation from slavery that the people are recalling, rather the granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai, a truly formative moment that completely changed their lives. Now they nostalgically remember the fact that they “crossed the Rubicon” − i.e., experienced that momentous event at Mount Sinai − and the juxtaposition of these two locales offers new meaning to the various foodstuffs that are longed for now. The “cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” symbolize in the people’s minds a life without Torah. In contrast with their previous existence, they now face a new situation: “... now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have naught save this manna to look to.” The essence of their complaint is the formalization of their way of life thanks to the introduction of a new and binding legal system. The monotony of manna reflects the monotony of their new way of life under the yoke of the Torah.
At this point, the Torah stops the Israelites’ monologue with the following: “Now the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium [crystal]. The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil. And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it” (Num. 11:7-9). This is a sort of interim clarification which the narrator introduces into the story − a clarification that is not evident to the complainers and known only to the reader. God, the narrator, alters the narrative’s syntax; after conveying the Israelites’ displeasure, he stops the flow of words and tries to persuade the reader not to be swayed by the people’s complaints.
But who is this reader? To whom is God explaining the Israelites’ mistake? Here is the sages’ surprising answer: “The Israelites say, ‘We have naught save this manna to look to.’ God placates all humanity and says: Just take a look at the reason they are angry with me. ‘Now the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium,’ as it is written, ‘and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium (Gen. 2:12)’” (Sifre Bamidbar).
This clarifying statement is aimed at all of humanity, but not Israel. Using the imagery of the coriander that appears to be bdellium, God attests to the quality of the commodity he now supplies his people; this description is intended to convey the value of manna to all those who have not tasted it. The Torah which God has granted to Israel is good − despite what the Children of Israel think. However, the passage comparing manna to coriander is addressed not to them, but to all humanity. It is therefore as if God, having despaired of the prospect that his children will study the Torah, is now turning the Torah into a universal entity and is presenting it to the nations of the world, to all readers, no matter who they are.
Although God has given up hope as to the Israelites’ study of Torah, he talks about manna − a symbol of the Torah − and thereby provides a solution to their distress. Their complaint centers around the monotony of their new way of life, which is now bound by the Torah’s text. They cite the dryness that infuses the soul when it lives solely on manna. But, manna, God counters, is a raw material that can be gathered and used by the gatherers as they see fit: i.e., ground in mills, boiled in pots, made into cakes. Within the limitations of this foodstuff, then, one can find something that refreshes the soul.
God uses the culinary realm as a metaphor for or symbol of the many different ways of interpreting the Torah. He seeks to liberate his children from the fantasy that they enjoyed freedom in Egypt and to teach them the nature of the freedom that can be derived from the many ways of dealing with the Torah’s text. Since their soul is sick and tired of manna, God has no choice but to announce a solution to the problem to the outside world, to all humanity. For their part, however, the complainers will only be able to hear that solution if they go back and listen carefully to the Torah and to the many different possibilities it embodies.