a little less and a little
less and then
but tonight, a little, a little more.”
- -from “wean” in “Little Astronaut: Poems by J. Hope Stein,” Simon and Schuster, 2022
In Parashat B'haalot'cha, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about two years. This means that, as a people, they are transitioning from infancy to toddlerhood. It’s no surprise that they start complaining about the food!
Thus far, the Israelites have been sustained by a miraculous food called manna, which literally means in Hebrew, “What is this stuff?” Appearing with the morning dew, it is described in various places as a bread-like substance that is white, flaky, and seed-like; tasting like bread, oil, rich cream, or wafers in honey (Exodus 16:14, 31; Numbers 11:7-8).
But even miraculous food loses its luster after two years. The Israelites begin to crave variety, crying: “We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4-6).
It’s not difficult to imagine parallels between God providing manna and a parent trying to feed their child. A hungry infant might eagerly accept milk from the caregiver. A toddler might want a little more agency. Though still reliant on the caregiver for food, they can choose whether to eat what’s in front of them, squish it in their fists, or throw it on the floor (a great lesson in cause and effect!).
Being a “picky eater” is one of a child’s first assertions of independence. This can cause distress to all involved: the child, trying to articulate ever-changing desires with a limited vocabulary; and the caregiver, trying desperately to keep the child nourished. My niece recently refused to eat the “crust” of the hamantaschen we’d baked together, violently digging out the cherry filling with a spoon.
It is fitting then, that when the Israelites start to complain, Moses invokes the plight of a nursing parent in his outcry to God:
“Did I conceive all these people, did I give birth to them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a caregiver [omen, literally, “wet nurse”] carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their ancestors?” (Numbers 11:11-14).
The Divine response to this outcry belies a similar frustration on God’s part. After providing the Israelites with a sudden influx of quail, God strikes the complainers down with a plague, “while the meat was still between their teeth” (Numbers 11:32-34).
Why does God—and Moses, for that matter—take the Israelites’ rejection of manna so personally?
In Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the Israelites’ time in the wilderness, saying that God, “fed you in the wilderness with manna … in order to test you” (Deuteronomy 8:16).
Rabbi Aviva Richman discussed of the nature of this test in a class entitled “Pray, Eat, Love: The Theology of Manna” (Hadar Institute’s 2018 Rabbinic Yeshiva Intensive). Examining the rabbis’ discussion of manna (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 75a-76a), she highlighted additional comparisons to nursing. For instance, Rabbi Abahu suggests that “Just as a baby tastes different flavors depending on what the mother eats, so too with manna; every time the Israelites ate manna, they tasted a different flavor.”
But, in order to enjoy the taste of manna, the Israelites have to surrender themselves to a new way of being fed. No matter how much an individual gathers, no person amasses more than anyone else. It cannot be preserved and must be consumed the same day, except for the double portion they receive on Erev Shabbat (the evening before Shabbat). The Israelites don’t take to these rules right away, trying their best to take more than their share or save some for later (Exodus 16:16-30).
The Rabbis suggest that this food insecurity is part of the test, saying: “There is no comparison between one who has bread in their basket and one who does not have bread in their basket” (Yoma 74b). The inability to keep manna in reserves put the Israelites in a constant state of worry about the future. In their best moments, their response to this anxiety was daily prayer (Yoma 76a). In their worst moments, they found themselves in a crisis of faith.
Torah scholar and author Dr. Aviva Zornberg writes that nursing is “the original site of trust, faith, emunah,” noting the similarity between the Hebrew word for faith and the word omen, “wet nurse,” which Moses uses here for “caregiver” (“Bewilderments,” p. 85).
We might then look at this conflict over manna as a kind of reverse weaning. After years of feeding themselves (more or less) in Egypt, the Israelites must let go of their nostalgia and learn to trust God, putting their faith in a food source they didn’t choose and cannot control.
The Rabbis ask: If manna was so miraculous, why couldn’t it have fallen once a year to eliminate the Israelites’ day-to-day worries? Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai offers a parable: If the king provides their child with an annual food allowance, the child might only visit once a year. But if the king only provides enough food for each day, the child visits every day (Yoma 76a).
Manna, then, is not only a food source, but also an opportunity for a daily moment of connection between God and the Israelites. Feeding children at any age can be a battle, but it is also one of the most primal ways that parents care for and connect with their children.
Elsewhere in the Talmud, we find the expression, “the cow wants to nurse more than the calf wants to suckle” (Pesachim 112a). What the Israelites need to learn is that God wants to give us manna as a daily reminder of love and care. The test is whether we can have enough faith to carry us from one feeding to the next.