Beha'alotcha -
    The Secret of the Manna

  Rambam tells us (1) of three approaches to understanding the Midrashim of the Rabbis. The first approach is to take them as literally true, believing them fully even in spite of any incongruence or impossibilities. The second approach, too, takes them literally, but rejects them when they contradict reason or science. The first approach is common among the religiously faithful community, while the second typifies the non-believing public. But Rambam favors a third approach. Realizing that the Rabbis were very wise, he says one should not take their words literally; but instead one should interpret any incongruence or scientific impossibilities found in their word as metaphors for deeper, more abstract concepts.

A classic example of this may be found in the description of the manna. The Sages describe the manna as a miraculous food. (2) It had any taste its consumer wished. It came from heaven to each man's door, or further away if he sinned. It was exactly the right amount for each person, and it left no residue in the body such that there was no need to expel waste. Observant Jews take this in its literal sense. Alternatively, there have been various attempts by modern scientists to try to identify a plant in the desert fitting these descriptions. This endeavor may be of some interest, but we must ask ourselves, how would Rambam want us to read these explanations? Surely, we are meant to find a deeper meaning.

The latter half of parshat beha'aholtekha provides some clues to this deeper meaning of the manna.

In verse 11:4 the marginal element among the Jews "lusted a lust" and began to complain. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his classic text, Meshech Chochmah (3) asks what does it mean to "lust a lust"? Before we answer this let us look at verse 11:5. Here the Israelites go on to complain that they remember the free fish they enjoyed in Egypt. Yet as Rashi points out, nothing in Egypt was free. So what did the Jews mean? Rashi states that they really meant they wanted to be free from mitzvot. Rabbi Meir Simcha explains that since fish needs no special laws to eat it, such as shechitah, it was unencumbered, "free" food. So their lust for meat was a desire to eat meat like they used to eat fish - easily, with no mitzvah or spiritual element. In their complaint against the manna, the Israelites say, (verse 11:6) "ein kol", there is nothing there. Meaning, this food doesn't go through the ordinary digestive process - it has no residue. (4) And this is precisely what they disliked; they wanted to eat normally. The Torah then in verse 11:7-8 explains how great manna was, tasting like "leshad hashemen," a fried sweet dough (Rashi).

But this physical description is countered by the Talmud's metaphysical description of the taste of the manna. The Talmud points out that for evil people the manna was troublesome. The taste is dependent on ones spiritual level. How could this be? Rabbi Meir Simcha explains that although we may try to describe the manna, we cannot succeed. It is similar to Rambam's explanation regarding the impossibility of understanding heaven, which is non-physical, as long as we live steeped in a physical world; this being like trying to explain colors to a person blind from birth. The manna having a taste dependent on your spiritual level is a metaphor meaning that eating the manna was a spiritual experience of pleasure, not a normal taste. It is as though the soul's taste buds tasted it. But it was not a physical food as we understand food. In the same way that with a number of people listening to the same music, some may like it and others won't. The music is the same; one just has to develop sensitivity to it. By complaining that they didn't like the taste of the manna, the Israelites were in fact complaining that they were not spiritually ready for it and wanted to be left at a lower spiritual plane.

Just as learning Torah is pleasurable only if you are ready for it, so too the manna needed spiritual readiness to be enjoyed. And in fact, those who appreciated Torah appreciated manna. Let us elaborate on this comparison. In whose merit did the Israelites receive the manna? Aaron brought protective clouds, Miriam brought water, and Moshe brought the manna. He also brought the Torah. Eating and loving manna shows ones love of Moshe's teaching. Rejecting manna is a rejection of his teaching. Rabbi Meir Simcha goes on to explain that normally eating meat develops all types of physical desires, but eating manna, causes the reverse, as one eats it, ones physical desires dissipate. By eating the manna, the Israelites had lost their physical, sensual, desires. It follows then that the Israelites should have lost their desire for meat. Why then did they ask for meat? We must realize that the Israelites did not like this state of affairs. They wanted to redevelop their physical desires. Thus it says they lusted the lust. They wanted to attain once again the lust for physical pleasures. They lusted to have the lust again. They had lost their enjoyment for life and they were not on a high enough spiritual level to find life's pleasure in Torah. Their request for meat symbolizes their desire to reenter the world of sensual pleasures.

Now we can understand Moshe's harsh reaction starting at verse 11, where he says: "Did I give birth to these people so that I have to support them physically? Where should I get enough meat?" We might ask, what kind of a question is this? Of course G-d can provide Moshe with meat. But we must realize that Moshe is expressing the difference between being rabbenu (teacher) and not being avinu (father). Avinu is an eternal relationship - your child is always yours. But this is not so with a teacher. Moshe is the nation's teacher, and the moment the gap is too great, the people can no longer be his disciples, and Moshe ceases to be their leader. Rejecting the manna and opting for a more physical existence is rejecting Moshe.

This explains G-d's reply to Moshe's complaint. G-d tells Moshe he must choose a Sanhedrin of 70 elders (verses 11:16-18). On first sight this makes no sense. Will the elders be in charge of acquiring, collecting and distributing meat? It doesn't seem so. Once we realize that the real issue is not manna, but Moshe as leader we can understand it. The gap between Moshe's high level and the nation's low level is filled by the Sanhedrin. By Moshe saying, I cannot give them meat, he means I am not a physical leader, I cannot provide physical food. I can only be a spiritual leader.

Now, when the Sanhedrin was chosen, they received a prophetic experience - just like Moshe. But two people, who despite their prophetic state, would not join the Sanhedrin. They were Eldad and Medad. But they did reveal their prophecy to Joshua. Moshe will die and Joshua will bring people into land. Moshe is not bothered by this prophecy, but Joshua is. What is the meaning of the timing of this prophecy here? Moshe can no longer be their leader. His inability to take them into Eretz Yisrael is further proof of that. The gap between leader and nation is too wide. The gap was caused by many failings of the people, such as their complaint, after leaving the sea of reeds, that they want water; their sigh of relief after revelation at Mount Sinai; their worshiping the golden calf; and finally their request for meat. At the moment of Matan Torah there was the closeness of teacher and student, and, had it lasted, Moshe would have been able to lead the people into the land. Thus, even the prophecy relates to the issue of Moshe as leader, and the inability of the nation to be at the level of the manna which represents a spiritual existence.

Chapter 12 may at first seem unrelated to the preceding chapter. Miriam and Aaron criticize Moshe for not having normal marital relations with his wife. All the other prophets need not separate from their wives, but Moshe does. Normal prophets are attached to their bodies; their bodies are not prophetic bodies, so they can have relations. But Moshe was in a constant state of prophecy and marital relations would disturb that state. Miriam's critique was not simply aimed at Moshe's behavior with his wife. She was telling him that while it is true that there must be a gap between teacher and disciple, or else there can be no real education, the gap cannot be too wide.

There are two ways to close a gap - either to raise up the nation, or to lower Moshe. Miriam's advice was essentially that Moshe should talk down on the level of the nation. She wanted Moshe to remain leader even if it meant he would have to come down from his level. This is the meaning of Miriam's advice that Moshe be with his wife; he should become a physical leader. The only problem with this is that G-d says that Moshe was in such a high state that it was impossible for him to lower himself. Either the nation must elevate itself or an intermediary must be found: the Sanhedrin.

Thus we see a common thread unifying the parshah: the rejection of the manna, the establishment of the Sanhedrin, and the prophecy that Moshe won't bring the Jewish people into the Land, all point to the people's inability to be the disciples of Moshe. The manna is the symbol of Moshe's Torah teachings and a metaphor for the spiritual life. In this light we can understand the seemingly bizarre statements in Midrash Rabba. When it says that the manna has any taste its consumer wishes, it may mean that Torah needs to be adjusted to the needs of the student, and that each student will discover something uniquely his own in the Torah. That the manna comes from heaven to each man's door, or further away if he sins indicates that the Torah, like the manna, is a Divine gift, which is difficult to obtain without spiritual purity and readiness and Divine help. Using Rambam's principle of searching out the hidden meaning of obscure rabbinic statements, we have hopefully uncovered gems of wisdom hidden in the Torah.

Rabbi Nachum Danzig, JCT alumnus, teaches in the Overseas Student Division.


(1) Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10, Introduction .
(2) Yoma 75a.
(3) Meshekh Chokhmah Numbers 11:4 (Vol.2 p.80-81in Copperman Ed.)
(4) Yoma 75b.

Senior Editor: Prof. Leo Levi,
Rector Emeritus, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev

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Short Ideas of mine

It is hard to understand why the people asked for meat at this time. We know they had cattle. Surely they could eat it. Also, why does Moses doubt that G-d can provide a large amount of meat? He surely knows that G-d can do really just about anything. Leviticus Ch 17 verse 3-4 is generally understood (Ramban) to mean that meating eating in the desert was only allowed if the animal was brought as a sacrifice in the Mishkan (according to Rabbi Yishmael in the B.Talmud (Zvachim 107a)). See also B.Talmud Chulin 17b says that "chulin" meat was prohibited in the desert because all of the Israelites were relatively close to the Mishkan as the encampment was but three "parsoh" square, approximately 9 miles square according to some opinions. In Eretz Yisroel, G-d does not burden them to travel great distances to the Bet Hamikdash to have their animals slaughtered as sacrifices. He therefore allowed them to slaughter non-sacrificial animals.

This sedra starts just after the finishing of the inaugural sacrifices for the Mishkan. That means that the altar is ready and from now on all animals that are slaughtered must be brought as sacrifices. For some reason - either a resistance to the spiritual purity required for the bringing of sacrifices, or the non-allowance of todot and shlamim (only olot were permitted), or the need to wait in turn until the altar was available - the people felt they no longer could eat meat as that had before.

When G-d promised to bring them meat for 30 days, Moses said, "Can sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them and it be enough?" Moses imagined that G-d intended to bring livestock to be slaughtered on the altar. Clearly it is impossible to slaugther enough meat for 600,000 men for 30 day on one altar. Moses realizes that bringing fish would be an alternative since they cannot be brought as sacrifices and therefore would not need the altar. But since they are "gathered" and not slaughtered at all they may not satisfy the people's need to slaughter animals (Alternatively, Moses may have honestly thought there are not enough fish in the sea to feed the people. Perhaps he was not well aware of the size of the sea.) In any case, G-d brought quails. What is interesting is that quail is a kosher bird which is slaughtered and yet it is not allowed to be brought as a sacrifice. Therefore, it represents the idea that animals can be slaughtered even if they are not being used as a sacrifice. Thus G-d satisfied the people's need for slaughtered meat without forcing them to bring sacrifices. Perhaps this Divine act signified the the new allowance of non-sacrificial slaughtering (chulin) in the desert.

Verse 10 in Chapter -- States "Behold Miriam was metzorat, as white as snow. And Aharon look and behold, she was metzorat." The word behold implies a sudden new revelation. What was new in the second beholding of Aharon? She already was metzorat. Why do we even need to be told that Aharon looked at her, surely many people saw her, why mention that Aharon also looked at her? And why only in the first beholding does the Torah say she was as white as snow?

Miriam was punished for speaking badly about Moses. Aharon also participated in this bad speach, but we do not see that he received any punishment. True he was not the instigator, but he should receive some form of punishment.

The Answer: We know that when a house gets signs of tzarat in the walls, the High Priest must be brought to the house to declare it impure. The house is not retroactively impure but is only impure from the moment the Priest says it is. Therefore, the Torah advises the owner to remove all items from the house before inviting the Priest to inspect the house. In this way these items will not become impure. So we see that in the case of tzarat it is not enough to show the signs of tzarat to be considered impure but one also needs the pronouncement of the Priest. Aharon was the High Priest in the wilderness. The verse is telling us that Miriam was merely white like a tzarat person but was not yet a metzora. When Aharon looked at her, he suddenly blurted out that she was metzorat. That is the meaning of the second Behold. He acted suddenly without his own volition. Aharon could have delayed declaring her a metzora to give her time to prepare or perhaps never declare her metzora. But G-d punished him that his freedom of action was removed and he found himself declaring her metzorah without having made the decision to do so. This was Aharon's punishment, and this explains the suddenness of the second behold and why Miriam is described as white as snow in the first instance.