Moses and Motherhood: Of Manna, Melons, and Matan
When I got home, I quickly prepared some lunch. I have learned to eat quickly, since Matan may stir at any moment, and then I’ll have to drop everything to feed him. Like most days, I ate my husband’s homemade gazpacho for lunch (made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, peppers, and leeks), followed by watermelon slices. I realized that I was eating almost all of the foods mentioned by Bnei Yisrael in their bitter complaints about their desert diet: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic” (Numbers 11:5). Had Moses turned the Nile into a blood-red river of gazpacho, with the fish swimming among the vegetables? Before I could pursue this absurd speculation, I heard the first whimpers from Matan’s bassinet. I knew it was a matter of moments before his whimpering would turn to full-throated wailing for food.
I confess that whenever Matan stirs (and he is stirring at this very moment, as I type!), my first reaction is often a sigh of exasperation. Like Coleridge with his person from Porlock, I do not handle interruptions well; and I struggle with how to manage my time given that I never know when Matan will want to be fed. In this sense he resembles Bnei Yisrael in the desert: “Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov said: In the beginning the children of Israel were like hens that peck continuously at scraps, until Moses came along and established fixed meal times” (Yoma 95b). Bnei Yisrael, a people still in their infancy after recently leaving the narrow birth canal of Mitzrayim, had not yet learned how to eat fixed meals. Perhaps, like Matan, their stomachs were still too small to sustain them for more than three hours. And so God rained down manna for them to gather. The manna tasted like shad ha-shamen, rich cream, a phrase that might more literally be translated as “the fat breast.” Like breastmilk, which will taste like whatever the mother ate the day before, the manna had a variety of different flavors. The Talmud makes this analogy explicit: “Rabbi Abahu said: Just as with the breast, a baby can taste a variety of flavors, so too when Bnei Yisrael ate the manna, they could taste a variety of flavors. And some say: It was like an actual breast. Just as a breast can have various shapes and colors, the manna too had various flavors” (Yoma 95a). In any case, Matan seems far more content with his breastmilk than Bnei Yisrael with their manna; the people of Israel began clamoring for solids to be introduced to their diet only months after their delivery from Egypt.
[An excursus] The episode about the people’s clamoring and complaining takes place just after they have “marched from the mountain of the Lord” (Numbers 10:33), which was also the site of the burning bush: “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Yitro, priest of Midyan, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horev, the mountain of the Lord” (Exodus 3:1). Both episodes involve the complaints of the people: In Exodus God tells Moses that he has “heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters” (3:7), and in Numbers the people “took to complaining bitterly against the Lord” (11:1). Both episodes also involve fire: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush” (3:2), and “a fire of the Lord broke out against the people” (11:1). Moses questions his role in both scenes: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites form Egypt” (3:11), and “Why have I not enjoyed your favor, that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me?” (11:11). At the bush, God tells Moses to put his hand into his bosom as a proof that the people will listen to him (4:6); and when the people complain, Moses asks how God could say to him, “Carry them in your bosom” (11:12). In both episodes, God’s response to Moses involves gathering the elders of Israel: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel” (3:16), and “Gather for me seventy of Israel’s elders” (11:16). The passages parallel each other with uncanny linguistic precision as Moses balks at the burdensome role with which God had previously saddled him. [End of excursus]
Moses has had it with the querulous people, who cry out to him like little babies – the text uses the word bocheh, which is the same word used when little baby Moses cried out in his ark (Exodus 2:6). And indeed Moses relates to the people as babies when he in turn cries out to God: “Why have you dealt ill with your servant, and why have I not enjoyed your favor, that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant?” (Numbers 11:11-12). Moses insists that he is sick and tired of nursing the people and responding to their every whimper and wail. Why can’t they leave him alone? Is he their mother? Did he give birth to them? Avivah Zornberg points out that Moses himself did not have a normal nursing experience. He went through a period in the ark when he was deprived of breastmilk altogether, and when he was returned to his mother’s bosom, his mother acted as a hired wet nurse in the employ of Pharaoh’s daughter. We might say (with apologies to Freud, as per the title of this post) that Moses was traumatized at the breast, and has not recovered. No wonder he wants the heavy burden of the people –who weighed surely much more than a watermelon—taken out of his sling.
Like Moses, I sometimes find motherhood frustrating – especially now, as I sit nursing Matan while typing the end of this post, pecking at the computer with one hand like a hen pecking at scraps. But as I look down at Matan’s big fishy eyes staring up at me from my bosom, I’m struck once again by how adorable he is. I did in fact conceive Matan, and bear him; and so unlike Bnei Yisrael and unlike Moses, I really cannot complain.