Leaving Childhood Behind

The specific complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness illustrate their inability to develop mature, adult relationships.

Commentary on Parashat Beha'alotcha, Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

In this week’s Torah portion we have one of a number of stories in the Torah about the kvetching and complaining that the people of Israel were guilty of during the time they were in the Sinai desert, traveling from Egypt to Israel. The story, in chapter 11 of Numbers, goes like this:

And the riff-raff among them had a craving, a lusting, and again they wept, along with the people of Israel, and they said “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt, free; the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our souls are dry, there is nothing, all we see is this manna.”

After this strange complaint (leeks? onions? garlic? And what kind of fish did the Egyptians give their slaves for free?), the Torah, in a pointed aside, extols the virtues of the manna that the Israelites so bitterly complained about: “Now the manna is like coriander seed and it looks like bdellium. The people would go out and collect it…its taste was like rich, moist oil…” This glowing description of the manna makes it difficult to understand what the Israelites were complaining about.

The Rabbis add to the problem by telling us that, in fact, the manna had the quality of tasting like whatever the eater imagined; ice cream, southern fried chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, whatever, which leads to the question–if that was the case, why didn’t the Jews just imagine that the manna tasted like watermelons and cucumbers and all that other stuff from Egypt that they said they missed so much? The Rabbis, in a well-known answer, say that these particular foods, when eaten by nursing mothers, produce an unpleasant taste for their nursing babies, and therefore God, as a favor to the nurslings, did not allow the manna to taste like them. Later on, I am going to posit a somewhat different explanation.

We then return to the story, and are told that “Moses heard the nation crying, by their families, each person at the opening of his tent, and God was very angry, and it looked bad to Moses.” Moses then turns and complains to God: “…Did I conceive this entire nation? Did I give birth to it, that you should say to me, ‘carry it in your bosom, as a nursing parent carries a suckling child, to the land that you promised to their forefathers?’ Where am I going to get meat to give to this whole nation, for they are crying to me, saying ‘give us meat, so we can eat!’ …”

It really looks like Moses has lost it! The imagery he uses–motherhood, nursing, crying children–is fascinating, and is even more so in the original Hebrew, in that Moses uses some feminine language, which the Rabbis see as making him seem even more of a female, “mother” figure.

The thrust of the story seems to be, I think, that the Jewish people behaved in a way that was extremely child-like, and Moses’ response is appropriate to that. The crying, the fact that they missed the food they ate in Egypt, not because it was very good but, rather, because it’s what they were used to, Moshe’s infantilizing the people in his speech to God, all seem to indicate that this is not about a real need for real food, but rather is about a tendency on the part of the Jews to regress to a simpler, child-like reality, symbolized by the foods of that childhood.

I’m reminded of an episode of “Friends” that I accidentally watched in which Monica was supposed to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone, and each person, childishly, wanted the mashed potatoes exactly the way their mother cooked it; with lumps, without lumps, creamy, crunchy, etc. One is also reminded of Proust’s madeleine, and how his childhood, and subsequently his entire life, was conjured up for him by the sensory memories he experienced when he dipped it into his cup of tea.

This desire for the physical, sensory, and tactile experiences of our childhood is not uncommon–I feel the same way about Kedem grape juice and Ring Dings, which really are awful. In our story, however, this is apparently part of a much more problematic pathology.

The Rabbis explain this pathology in the following way: When the people complain, the Torah tells us that “Moses heard the nation crying, by their families, each person at the opening of his tent.” The simple meaning is that they gathered in family groups in order to protest the lack of meat. The Rabbis, however, claim that “by their families” actually means they were crying ABOUT a family matter, namely, the fact that now, after having been given the Torah, the Jews were forbidden to engage in incestuous sexual relations, and this is what they were crying about!

Where did the Rabbis get this weird idea? Why do they insult the Jews of the pre-Torah period by maintaining that they were not only guilty of incest, but were in fact so into it that they all got together and cried when those relationships were forbidden to them?

It would seem that we are being taught a profound lesson about infantilism, growing up, and sexuality. The Torah’s paradigm of mature, adult sexuality is expressed in Genesis, at the creation of Adam and Eve. Adam is lonely without a mate, unsatisfied. God creates woman, Adam likes her, a lot, and the Torah says: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Of course, Adam had no father and mother to leave, and yet the Torah insists that an intimate relationship between a man and a woman is predicated upon a leaving behind of the intimate relationships of one’s childhood, and the establishing of a new relationship, the forging of a new reality. Growing up, we are being told, is about leaving behind the sensations and intimacies of childhood, and creating a new set of sensations and intimacies.

“And they become one flesh,” according to the Rabbis, refers not only to this new-found intimacy, but is also a reference to the new life, the child, who is created by this union, which, in fact, makes the transition from childhood to adulthood complete; one leaves behind being a child by becoming a parent.

The People of Israel in the desert were infantile; craving the food of the nation’s ‘childhood’ in Egypt, complaining about the food that they now had to go and get themselves, and whose taste they had to invent through a creative act of the imagination. They preferred, instead, to simply nostalgically remember and re-experience the tastes and sensations of their infancy, the food the Egyptians gave to them “free”–i.e., like babies, fed to them by an all-powerful “parent,” as passive, rather than active recipients.

This mind-set, the Rabbis tell us, is consistent with incest; a clinging to the intimacies of one’s infancy, rather than moving forward to create new, adult intimacies, new relationships, out of which are created new human beings, new families. Incest, in this understanding, is about not being able to grow out of the relationships that we are born into, not being able to grow beyond the sensations and interactions we experienced as children. Incest is a failure of the imagination, a failure to look beyond our childhood, which is our first experience of love, intimacy, and relationship, to the possibility of leaving that behind in order to create a new set of relationships, and, ultimately, new life.

It is appropriate, therefore, that God withheld from the Jewish people the ability to imagine that the manna tastes like foods that are bad for nursing babies. The message behind that is clear–it is time to give up what you ‘ate’ (experienced, felt, loved) as a child, and to ‘eat’ like an adult, i.e., that which is a product of your own active imagination, and which will nourish your own children. Your expectations of physical sensation and pleasure should not hark back to your infantile experiences of them, but, rather, should be part of an active attempt to leave them behind, to stop being a child and become a parent.

The message for the growth and maturation of the nation, as well as for us as individuals, is clear.

Reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.


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