We read in Parashat Chukat of Benei Yisrael’s complaints as they impatiently traveled to circumvent the kingdom of Edom, forced to take a circuitous route after the king of Edom refused to allow them passage through his territory. They told Moshe that he should not have taken them from Egypt to bring them to the desert, and they expressed their dissatisfaction with the manna, derisively calling it “lechem ha-kelokel” (“this miserable bread” – 21:5). God punished the people by unleashing poisonous snakes that swarmed through the camp and killed large numbers of people.
Rav Aharon Levine (the “Reisha Rav”), in his Ha-derash Ve-ha’iyun, suggests a creative approach to explain the people’s complaints about the manna, an approach which he acknowledges is meant “be-derekh derash” (a far-fetched reading that does not reflect the plain meaning of the text). He cites a passage from the Benei Yissaskhar (Ma’amar Ha-Shabbatot 43) in which the author (Rav Tzvi Elimelekh Shapiro of Dinov) states that Benei Yisrael did not recite a berakha before partaking of the manna each day. Rav Levine explained this comment by noting the Gemara’s formulation in Masekhet Berakhot (35) establishing the obligation to recite a berakha before eating: “It is forbidden for a person to derive benefit from this world before reciting a berakha.” The obligation is to recite a berakha before deriving benefit from our world, and it thus did not apply to the manna, which originated from a different world, from the heavenly domain. And it was for this reason that Benei Yisrael resented the manna. The Gemara there in Berakhot explains that we must recite a berakha before eating, because it is only after reciting a berakha that the food becomes ours. Until then, it – like the rest of the world – is the exclusive property of the Almighty. Only once we recite a berakha do we “acquire” the food as our own such that we are “legally” entitled to enjoy it. The fact that Benei Yisrael did not recite a berakha over the manna demonstrated that it was not theirs, that throughout this period, they ate God’s food. They ate as guests, each and every day. They never experienced the satisfaction of ownership and self-sufficiency, and this is what they resented.
Like many Midrashic readings of verses, this creative “derash” in fact dovetails with the true meaning of the text. Benei Yisrael had anticipated approaching the border and preparing for their long-awaited entry into the land, but their hopes were dashed by Edom’s stubborn refusal to grant them passage. But they were most troubled not by the conditions in the wilderness per se, but rather by their perpetual state of dependency. They longed to till their own land, to bake their own bread. They wanted to eat food from the earth, not food from the heavens. Their desire was to recite berakhot – to take ownership, so-to-speak, of this world, even while acknowledging that everything is given to us from God. But while this desire, in and of itself, is legitimate, the time had not yet arrived for them to prepare their own bread. As Moshe tells the people at length in the Sefer Devarim (beginning of Parashat Eikev), the purpose of the desert experience was to inculcate within Benei Yisrael absolute faith in the Almighty and His exclusive ability to provide them with their needs. They needed to live with complete dependence on His grace and on His supernatural assistance so that once they entered the land, tilled the soil, and enjoyed the fruits of their labor, they would recognize that their material blessings come from God alone, notwithstanding their efforts and ingenuity. And thus the people’s protests were inappropriate, as God had determined that they were not yet spiritually prepared to begin the next stage of their history as a nation building an agricultural society in their homeland. They still needed to eat heavenly bread, to live a miraculous existence in which they took no part in securing their sustenance, until the time when they would be ready to build their own country without losing sight of the hand of Providence that brought success to their endeavors.