Milk and Manna

In a fit of ingratitude, a bunch of rabble began to complain that they missed Egyptian watermelon. They were sick of man. The Parsha [Bemidbar 11:5 - read in Israel this past Shabbat, but will be read in chu”l this Shabbat] lists a bunch of foods that were apparently unavailable in the desert.

Rashi is bothered by the following question: If the manna could assume the taste of anything, why couldn’t it assume these tastes? Rashi answers that these tastes were tough on nursing mothers and their babies. He quotes the Sifrei to bring a parable to a king that wouldn’t let his son eat unhealthy foods, even though it caused the son to get angry at his father.

Needless to say, at first glance Rashi’s answer has some pretty gaping holes. To wit, the manna didn’t become whatever one wanted it to become; it merely tasted like it. So even if nursing mothers shouldn’t eat watermelon, what’s the big deal if something tastes like watermelon? Furthermore, the examples of onion and garlic are familiar, but fish? Cucumbers? Melons? And finally, why shouldn’t men or non-nursing mothers not taste a bit of eggplant? Why should we all suffer on their count?

I think that the answer lies in the very connection of manna to mother’s milk. I’ve written several times before that the Israelites, collectively, went through stages of maturity. Different events along the way correspond, on a mythic plane, to stages of human development from birth through adulthood, and our collective relationship with God parallels that development. For example, the splitting of the sea is a birthing myth – the passage from a state of absorption within a larger entity to a state of independent identity, and the story itself incorporates elements of a birthing narrative.

The state of infancy is characterized by complete selfishness on the part of the baby, and complete dependence upon the mother for nourishment. This state more than adequately applies to the Israelites in the desert. The manna, therefore, was itself akin to the ‘breast milk’ that nourished us in our infancy, and became the paradigm for direct nourishment from God, the inspiration for the first paragraph of Birkat Ha-Mazon, which blesses God for sustaining all life (cf. Brachot 48b).

Breast milk has the amazing property that it tastes like whatever the mother had eaten. Perhaps Rashi’s answer, then, means that the Israelites were not the mother, but the child. The manna couldn’t taste like any of those foods because no mother would eat those foods when nursing her child. The Israelites couldn’t taste anything that they couldn’t have tasted in mother’s milk!

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