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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
Those of you who have read this column for long enough now know that it is difficult to find a Parsha that is not about sex. Certainly Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah view the universe as a myriad of interconnected couplings, couplings which are unabashedly sexual in nature. And why shouldn’t they be? Sex is an extraordinary and intense gift from Above, and almost as misapprehended. As Mark Twain once observed, “of all the delights of this world man cares most for sexual intercourse. He will go any length for it – risk fortune, character, reputation, life itself.”
Even the more revealed, less mystical aspects of the Torah are often a discussion about sex, though often just beneath the surface. This week’s Parsha is a good example of this.
In virtually every shul and synagogue in the world, the Torah is read. And just before the Torah is removed from the Holy Ark, there is a universal prayer, the first verse of which was taken from Parshat B’Haalotcha: וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה קוּמָה | יְהֹוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ – “And so it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You.'” Numbers, 10:35. Then, the following verse states: “And when it came to rest he would say, ‘Repose O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel.'”
These two verses are considered so important, that the sages of the Talmud tell us that they actually deserved a book of their own (which would have resulted in seven Books of Moses instead of five). But what do they mean? Sure they are a reference to the military power and unstoppable progress of the Israelite army, which would traditionally be preceded by the Holy Ark, and G-d’s subsequent rest among His people. It is even a reference, as the Or Hachayim explains, to our conquest of our spiritual enemies and temptations.
However, it is also about sex. As the Talmud states regarding the words “the myriads of thousands of Israel” (cited in Rashi): “This teaches us that the Divine Presence does not rest on Israel if they number fewer than twenty-two thousand.” According to the Kli Yakar, this is a post-Sinai imperative for the Jewish people to have sex and reproduce as much as possible. For imagine if the Jewish population fell just below 22,000 – and you had held back from sexual reproduction. That means that you are the one to be single-handedly responsible for causing the Shechina, the Divine Presence, to depart from Israel! Thus, this is a directive for all Jews to go at it like bunny rabbits.
The Kli Yakar takes this further, explaining that this sets the stage for the infamous complaints that immediately follow these verses in the Parsha.
At this point in their trek through the desert wilderness, two incidents are recorded, each of them cryptic in its own right. Here’s the text:
The people were as complainers, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, and a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the extremes of the camp. The people cried out to Moses; Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. He named that place Tab’erah, for the fire of the Lord had burned among them there.
But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.” Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance was like the appearance of crystal… Moses heard the people weeping for their families, each one at the entrance to his tent. The Lord became very angry, and Moses considered it evil.
As you may recall, the second incident ended with G-d supplying the Israelites with a month’s worth of desert quail; for many, however, the quail proved to be a poison pill, as it was accompanied by a plague that killed many.
Many commentaries note the following perplexities: In the first incident, why was there no formal complaint to Moses; instead, the people were simply “as complainers” and were immediately punished for it? In the second incident, if the taste of the manna changed to whatever flavor a person wished, why were they craving other food? More importantly, didn’t they have an abundance of meat? We are told that when the Israelites left Egypt “a great mixed multitude went up with them, and flocks and cattle, very much livestock.” Exodus, 12:38. We also know that this supply did not dwindle, as we are taught that, 40 years later, “the descendants of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of livestock, very numerous.” Numbers, 32:1. So they had plenty of cattle and meat. And free fish? If the Egyptians would not even give the Israelites the straw with which to make bricks, would they have supplied them with free fish? And how about the veggies? Were those standard Egyptian fare? And how come they ask for meat, but just recall the fish and the vegetables? Finally, what does it mean that the the people were “weeping for their families”?
Answer: It’s all about sex.
G-d had just told the Jewish people how important it is to have sex and procreate. But then He also forbade them from having any incestuous relationships – even those that had been permissible in Egypt, such as aunts, and sisters on the father’s side. And then He separated the Jewish people, dividing them into distinct camps, and ordering them to camp as a tribe. So the pool of sexual partners had just been drastically reduced. The Israelites no longer mingle with each other across tribal lines; yet aunts and sisters are no longer permissible sexual partners. Now mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, daughters, granddaughters, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law, sisters and aunts are out. So who’s left? Just cousins, really. This may seem like a small problem to us, today, when the members of our close family are relatively small, and there is a broad selection of unrelated (or very distantly-related) coreligionists from which to choose a mate. Then, however, the selection was tiny. Sure, there may have been some inter-tribal dating, but that was quickly coming to an end. Indeed, several chapters later, G-d commands that “every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father’s tribe.” Numbers, 36:8.
The sexual restrictions were behind the initial grumblings in the first incident. They did not bring these to Moses, but G-d heard, and strongly disapproved.
In the second incident, these complaints about restrictions on their sexuality and procreation were formally presented. This is what is meant when it says the people were “weeping for their families“: they were weeping over the familial incestuous relationships that were now prohibited to them.
And here, the Kli Yakar explains the requests for food in two different ways:
The first is that the foodstuffs were delicate euphemisms for sex.
Eating is a common euphemism for sex. This we see with Joseph’s service to Potiphar, where Potiphar trusted him with everything “except the bread that he ate.” Later, when Joseph refuses the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, he confirms that “he has not withheld anything from me except you.” See Genesis, 39:6,9. Or, as expressed in Proverbs (30:20) “So is the way of an adulterous woman; she eats and wipes her mouth, and she says, ‘I have committed no sin.'” “Meat” is a clear euphemism for human flesh, as is fish; except that fish have a connotation of great promiscuity and fecundity – far more so than land animals.
So the Israelites complained as follows: “We remember life in Egypt, where our sexuality had no restrictions, and we had sex as freely as fish. And we get that You wish us to be a holy nation, and distinct from all others. But can’t we at least have meat? Can’t we at least have the sexual freedom as other animals have? Can’t we at least have a greater abundance of sexual choices? Must our sexuality be limited as the Manna; nourishing, perhaps, but available strictly on an as-needed basis, with no excess? We need access to more women!”
And what was G-d’s response? He sent the quail, a fleshy, fatty bird. The Kli Yakar does not explain the significance of the quail in light of the Israelites’ complaint. However, a recent article discussing a study of Japanese quail breeding suggests that G-d may have indeed intended to convey a substantive message regarding human sexuality. Quail appear, for the most part, to be fairly monogamous. And yet the quail’s large clutches of eggs are indicative of a high degree of fertility and fecundity. So perhaps the message was: “If you’re genuinely worried about procreation, don’t worry about it – you’ll be fine. If it’s promiscuity that you miss, then you’re simply going to have to be disappointed.”
The second way the Kli Yakar explains the Israelites’ complaint is that they were all about aphrodisiacs.
Thus, the Israelites complained that the Manna is ill-suited to the task of promoting sex and procreation. The Manna, they argued, would not heat the body. Rather, it would be efficiently absorbed in the body; but would also not be processed in such a way that would create the moisture necessary for an abundance of semen. Thus, they lamented, “our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.” Numbers, 11:6.
To the latter complaint, the Torah immediately responds “Now the manna was like coriander seed.” Numbers, 11:7. The deliberate reference to “seed” was intended to rebut the claim that the Manna did not increase the Israelites’ semen. Moreover, the Talmud picks on on the Hebrew word for “coriander” – “Gad” – and notes that the same word also means “tell”, reflecting some of the other legendary sexual properties of the Manna. For example, if a woman was divorced, immediately remarried and had a baby seven months later, the amount of Manna that would end up in the pile of her ex-husband or her new husband would reveal whether her child was from her previous husband, and born after a full term, or from her new husband, and born after only seven months — seven being the numerical equivalent of the word “Gad” – גַּד. (Other commentaries cite the Midrash for the Manna’s abilities to reveal the parentage of illegitimate children, as the daily portion for those children would somehow be found in the tent of their biological father. As this would expose those that had engaged in forbidden relationships that resulted in offspring, the complaints regarding the Manna were part and parcel of the complaints regarding the newly-forbidden relationships).
As for the claim that the Manna was dry, the Torah testifies that “It had a taste like the taste of oil cake” – very moist indeed.
However, G-d did send the quail, a fleshy bird which is very effective at heating the body.
From the various commentaries, it appears that there was likely varying groups: there were those who missed the sexual freedom and promiscuity of Egypt; there were those who were concerned regarding their rate of procreation, surely noting that they were no longer giving birth to sextuplets as they had in Egypt; and there were those who were concerned that their miraculous diet was missing some of the staples necessary for a robust and fertile sex life. However it is certainly fascinating to see that it is our sexuality that most often prominently threads its way into the fabric of our relationship and our negotiations with our Creator.