Reflections on Parashat Beha’alotcha by Louisa Kornblatt
No matter how many culinary highlights I enjoyed as a camper at Ramah, for some reason I insisted on complaining. Chocolate milk on Friday afternoons and ice cream sandwiches for dinner at the end of Shabbat were two of my favorites, but my friends and I found reasons to kvetch as kids do. I was a picky eater, and Ramah did not provide the diversity of options it does today, and I laugh at my younger self when I think of what I refused to eat: green leafy vegetables, roasted vegetables, and more. The complaining, it turns out, was not about the food, and certainly not about how I felt about camp, a home away from home for me and so many others. And yet, maybe, complaining about food was indicative of a different process, one others have gone through as well, to feel comfortable enough in a new setting.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, the Israelites get a little fed up with their stagnant diet of manna and more manna. Manna is described as being “like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium” (Numbers 11:7). The Israelites collected it, “ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil.” (Numbers 11:8). That doesn’t sound too terrible to me as a person with a very powerful sweet tooth. However, I imagine that donuts day in and day out would get tiresome.
It is very human to complain, and as I have gotten older I have begun to recognize that complaints are usually more than what they may appear. I wonder if the Israelite’s dietary complaints were actually part of something larger. Rashi claims that when the Torah says, “they were looking to complain” (Numbers 11:1) it means that the people were “seeking a pretext to turn away from the Omnipresent.” They were simply looking for a reason to lash out at a god who had yet to bring them to the Promised Land. Maybe what the Israelites were truly complaining about was feeling lost and without a home. Perhaps they had begun to question whether they would ever find a home. For me, food is one of the most centralizing factors in my life. As I have worked to create a home for myself in Israel this past year, I have put a lot of effort into my kitchen. Being able to prepare my own food that I choose is both empowering and comforting. It is a way for me to bring home with me no matter where I am. At this point, the Israelites had been wandering for many years in the desert with no permanent home. They romanticize the food they consumed back in Egypt even though they were slaves. Occupying the in between space, as the Jews did in the desert, is challenging and exhausting; it’s normal to yearn for stability and creature comforts.
Again, I think back to camp and the home I have made for myself there. I remember the many sweet moments that happened over the sharing of food. In fact, meals were my favorite times because they would bring the entire eidah together. I loved singing after Friday night dinner because I was sitting next to my best friends. Food unites us. It helps us create a sense of home. I think the Israelites were simply yearning for a home just like so many of us have found at Camp Ramah.