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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Chukat

Miracles or Nature? You Decide

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Our parasha deals with several events that occurred on the eve of Bnei Yisrael’s entry into Eretz Yisrael. One of the more surprising ones is Bnei Yisrael’s complaints about the man. In the context of their distress at the traveling, circumventing the Land of Edom, they said: "... for there is no bread and no water, and our souls are disgusted by the insubstantial food (lechem hakelokel). Hashem sent the venomous snakes amidst the nation and they bit the nation, and a great mass from the people of Israel died" (Bamidbar 21: 5-6).

What is the connection between the complaints and the circumvention of Edom? How could the nation call the man by the negative description, lechem hakelokel? After all, the Torah praises its taste (Shemot 16:31), and Chazal tell us that it was possible to taste any taste one wanted when eating it and relate other miracles that accompanied it (Yoma 75a). What is the significance of the specific, unusual punishment at the hands of the snakes?

One of the mitzvot which is still popular among a very broad section of Jews is lighting candles on the eve of Shabbat. The gemara (Shabbat 25b) says that it is an absolute obligation and Tosafot (ad loc.) explain that it is necessary to increase oneg Shabbat (pleasantness of the Shabbat experience - see also Mishna Berura (263:1)). At least part of the explanation is based on the fact that people enjoy their food better when they can see it. The combination of the good taste and the attractive appearance completes the positive experience.

The man, the miraculous food which accompanied Bnei Yisrael until they reached inhabited land, was a delicacy from the perspective of its taste. One could taste whatever he wanted. The generation that left Egypt knew the tastes of many different kinds of food and could pinpoint any type of taste they desired. On the other hand, they had given up the variety of appearances one could experience with food. However, its reliable availability and its taste made it an attractive alternative for them.

The generation that grew up in the desert with the man and was now preparing to enter the Land had a different perspective. They did not know how to channel their taste desires because of a lack of culinary experience. They lived with that, but the matter became more difficult when they came in contact with other nations as they approached Edom and saw "real" food. Then people began complaining about their lot regarding the man they were weary of seeing. Hashem’s response was simple. Did they want miracles or nature? If they wanted everything natural, then they must realize that a nation that walks through the wilderness for 40 years will chance upon and be imperiled by many venomous snakes. The lesson was that one cannot, as a rule, "hold the rope from its two ends" and choose when he wants miracles and when he wants a natural life.

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