Sometimes I spend my day thinking about food. From what to pack for my kids’ lunches to grocery lists, dinner and trying not to eat that leftover cupcake, food is never far from my mind.
I suspect I’m average in this way, so it is no surprise that when the people complain in this week’s portion, Beha’alotecha, one of their main complaints is about the food. They want meat, and reminisce about the food they enjoyed in Egypt: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. They complain about the food they do have: manna. “There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
Why complain about manna? The Torah tells us a few verses later that it tasted like rich cream. In Exodus 16, where we learn even more about this mysterious substance, it is written: “It was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey.”
In fact, the midrash says, it tasted like the exact food that each person needed at that moment: “To young men it tasted like bread, to the elderly it tasted like wafers made with honey, to sucklings it tasted like milk from their mother’s breast, to the sick it tasted like fine flour mingled with honey, while for the heathen it tasted as bitter as linseed.”
The rabbis treat manna reverentially: It is one of the 10 miraculous things that was created on the eve of the first Shabbat at twilight, according to Avot. Another midrash speaks of heavenly millstones that ground the manna into flour for the righteous so that they could bake it into cakes.
Yet the rabbis also try to make sense of why the people would complain about the manna, demanding meat and gorging on it until they were sick. A verse in Deuteronomy implies that even with the manna, the people were still hungry: “He subjected thee to the hardship of hunger when He gave thee manna to eat.” Confused, the rabbis consult a baker, who answers by showing them two cucumbers — one whole and one crushed, but of the same size.
“How much are they worth?” he asks. When the rabbis price the whole one higher than the crushed one he makes his point: “Even as a man derives enjoyment from the taste of food, so he derives enjoyment from the appearance of food.” The manna looked and felt the same each time the people ate. This lack of the visual to the food and the monotony of it made it less satisfying.
Another midrash about a verse in Deuteronomy describes the manna as a hardship. In this midrash, in addition to concluding that the appearance of what you eat is important to the experience of eating, they make another inference. “The feelings of a man who has bread in his basket are not like the feelings of one who has not.” The Israelites found it hard to have to trust that the manna would come down each day. When people lack food security, not knowing if they will have food from day to day, the experience of hunger is magnified, even in the moment when they do have enough food to eat.
In Philadelphia, 28.4 percent of people are living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s 2012 report. They are the most likely to experience hunger and food insecurity.
As thoughts of food occupy our minds day to day, let us also think about those who don’t have enough, and how we might help to change that.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected] .