An intriguing verse is found in this week’s portion: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at!’” (Numbers 11:4-6)
What is so great about cucumbers that would cause people to weep? Obviously it is not about the objects themselves but instead a longing for the past, even when it was one of slavery. We tend to mythologize the past. As soon as we confront struggles and challenges with the new direction we have chosen, or for that matter were dragged into, we long for the past, even when that reality was not in our best interest. How else can we explain the Israelites craving leeks and onions? I certainly doubt they were making chicken soup in Egypt! Now that they are confronting hardships and difficulties they long for the past—even when it tasted terrible.
This week I discovered another lesson about these foods. In next week’s portion, the scouts travel the land of Israel and bring back a report. They speak of the foods of this new land. In the land of Israel there are to be found for instance grapes, figs and pomegranates. David Arnow points out that these are perennials. By contrast the foods of Egypt are annuals. They have to be replanted every year.
Grapes, figs and pomegranates produce for many years, although they take several years to mature and bear fruit. They of course require care and nurturing, but they remain a long-term solution to hunger. The lesson becomes clear. It was not only Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites but also the very foods of Egypt. These they had to plant year after year. Still they long for the familiar. They long for the very tools by which they were enslaved.
I wonder to what foods are we enslaved. In our modern society where we are far removed from the processes of planting, growing and harvesting our foods have we become chained to certain foods? Would our gullets shrivel without sugar or corn syrup, chicken or steak? There is growing evidence that many of the foods of modern culture pose health dangers, especially in the quantities that we eat them, yet we continue to claim that we cannot do without.
I am left wondering. Are we once again languishing in Egypt, dependent on yearly crops that do not promise a better long-term future? Is it possible to look beyond the yearly cycle of planting and harvesting and instead plan not only for our children but even our great grandchildren’s future? Can the very foods we eat become part of a grander dream?
The prophet proclaimed a messianic vision: “And every man shall sit under his grapevine and fig tree and no one shall terrify him.” (Micah 4:4)