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Why Do We Deserve God’s Favor?

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Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan

“Does God exist?” would appear to be the most important question for monotheistic religion.

But imagine we could put that question aside. In particular, let us put ourselves at the far shore of the Sea of Reeds just after God has miraculously drowned the pursuing Egyptian army. At that moment, the text (which will be read in synagogues this coming Shabbat) tells us that “the people feared God and they believed in God and in Moses his servant” (Exodus 14:31). Moses and the people then break into song (15:1-19), proclaiming their recognition of God as their miraculous benefactor; of His sole responsibility for their deliverance from Pharaoh; of His preeminence over pagan gods; and of how God, their invincible “man of war,” would soon be leading them to victory over the peoples of Canaan and Transjordan.

This text describes a people who no longer have any doubt as to the existence of God. Moreover, they do not believe in a deist God who set the world in motion and then stands outside history. Rather, they believe in a God who actively intervenes in history on their behalf.

Remarkably however, these people soon have a crisis of faith. Just days later, after stopping in Marah and encamping in Elim, they enter the Wilderness of Sin. Soon the people begin to panic. Here is the description of this panic:

And they traveled from Elim, and the entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the Wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the 15th day of the second month of their departure from the land of Egypt. And the entire congregation of the children of Israel complained to/leaned on Moses and on Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, ‘Who will give us our deaths at the hand of God in the land of Egypt, when we sat on/at the fleshpots, when we ate bread to our fill? Whereas you took us out to this wilderness to cause the deaths of this entire assembly by famine!’ (Exodus 16:1-3).

This crisis is very strange. How could anyone who just experienced divine deliverance—and who publicly testified to their expectation of future deliverance—give up on God so quickly? And if they can give up on God, how are we— who struggle for hints of God’s presence and favor in our own lives—to avoid doing likewise?

To address this fundamental question, I will first lay out a set of more specific questions about the puzzling panic at the Wilderness of Sin. The good news is that once these questions are set before us, they emerge as puzzle pieces that allow us to arrive at a deeper understanding of this crisis of faith. Furthermore, when we examine God’s response to this crisis, it provides us with important insight into the Torah’s answer to a more important question than whether we should believe in God: What relationship with God should we strive for? 

The Puzzle in the Panic

In the context of the story of the Exodus through chapter 16, the panic at the Wilderness of Sin poses multiple difficulties.

The first difficulty is that the people have no apparent cause for complaint. In the text excerpted above, there is no mention of the fact that the people lack food. By contrast, the Torah tells us of multiple prior occasions when the people or their representatives had good reason to complain:

  1. When their burdens were increased by Pharaoh after he rebuffed Moses and Aaron’s initial appeal to let the people go (Exodus 5).
  2. When the Egyptian Army bore down upon the people at the Sea of Reeds (14:9-11).
  3. When, immediately after crossing the sea, they walked for three days in the Wilderness of Shur with no water (15:22).
  4. When they then arrived at Marah and discovered that the water was too bitter for drinking (15:23-24).

In the third case, the Torah goes out of its way to tell us (seemingly to register praise) that they had no water but seemingly did not complain. And while the people do complain or cry out in the other episodes, there is no indication that such cries are inappropriate: indeed, who could blame them for crying out at a time of distress? Accordingly, God responds positively to their cries: He delivers them from their Egyptian taskmasters; He saves them from the Egyptian army; and He shows Moses how to sweeten the water. And He then sustains the people with 70 date palms and 12 springs at Elim. At this point, you would think that the people would hold off from complaining till they had some reason to complain.

But no. Why complain well before there is reason to complain?

A second difficulty concerns the target of their complaints, and how this evolves over time. In the first of the four episodes, the Hebrew overseers first cry out to Pharaoh for mercy (5:15) and then accost Moses and Aaron (5:20), accusing them of misrepresenting God. But having witnessed the ten plagues and presumably having learned that God is indeed intervening on their behalf, their response at the Sea of Reeds is first to pray (“cry out”) to God (14:10) and then to accuse Moses of having led them astray. Next, at Marah, after experiencing deliverance from the Egyptian army, the people issue the simple complaint to Moses of “What shall we drink? (15:24)” Moses then prays to God (15:25), apparently (“crying out”) in a public manner.

Given this pattern, one would think that the people would recognize that God is the address for all entreaties and that the proper form of entreaty is to “cry out” in prayer. Why don’t they cry out to God here instead of “complaining” to Moses and Aaron?

Third, why is there such a strong emphasis on the fact that the entire people participated in the complaint? In the aforementioned appeals to God and Moses, there is no mention of what proportion of the people participated, but here the Torah emphasizes that “the entire congregation (עדה)” arrived at the Wilderness of Sin (16:1) and again that “the entire congregation” complained to Moses and Aaron (16:2). And then when they formalize their complaint, they emphasize that it would have been better for “this entire assembly (קהל)” to be killed with famine. Why the emphasis on the entire congregation/assembly?

Fourth, it’s strange that the Torah goes out of its way in 16:2 to tell the reader that this happened “in the wilderness (במדבר).” One is reminded of a similar oddity in Numbers 15:32, at the outset of the story of the wood-gatherer. If anything, the emphasis on the wilderness is odder here because the location is unclear in Numbers. But in this case, we have just been told the exact location of the camp—in the Wilderness of Sin. So why emphasize that this took place “in the wilderness?”

Fifth, one wonders why the date of arrival in the Wilderness of Sin is mentioned—i.e., one month since the new moon that marked the departure from Egypt. No dates are mentioned up to this point in the narrative, and no dates are mentioned again until the very end of Exodus. We aren’t told the date of the first Sabbath (soon after this complaint, but precisely how many days after is disputed) or the date of the giving of the Torah on Sinai (soon after the third month [Exodus 19:1], but how soon after?).

Why is this date so important?

Finally, there is a set of interlocking difficulties concerning the formulation of the complaint:

  • The most obvious difficulty concerns the rosy memories of Egypt they invoke. They were oppressed slaves, after all. How can they—with straight faces—recall living the good life there?
  • Furthermore, it is curious that there appear to be two distinct rosy memories of Egypt—one pertaining to meat, the other to eating bread—rather than one: “when we sat on/at the fleshpots, when we ate bread to our fill.” If it were just one memory, there would be a ו, a simple coordinating conjunction, between the two components of the memory: either “when we sat on/at the fleshpots and ate bread to our fill” or even “when we sat on/at the fleshpots, and when we ate bread to our fill.” But that ו is missing, implying two distinct memories. What are these two memories, one involving the enjoyment of meat and the other involving the enjoyment of bread?
  • Next there is the second half of the complaint. It is odd that they are they so focused on the prospect of dying by “God’s hand” such that this is the preferred alternative to death by starvation. This is in sharp contrast to their plea to Moses when the Egyptian army approached at the Sea of Reeds. At that point, they argued that Moses should have left them alone to be oppressed by Egypt and die there (14:11-12). Why do they now see the alternative as meeting their deaths at the “hand of God?” This question is reinforced by the fact that the “hand of God” had just saved them from the Egyptians! Their first recognition of God’s “great hand” is at the moment of deliverance at the Sea of Reeds, just prior to the description of Israel as fearing God and believing in God and Moses his servant (14:31): “And Israel saw the great hand that God did to Egypt.” The expression “hand” (with variants “arm” and “right (hand)”) of God is a key word in the Song of the Sea that follows, appearing 6 more times. If God’s hand was so recently the source of their deliverance from Egypt, why are they suddenly so afraid of it?
  • Finally, if is it strange that they have rosy memories of Egypt (difficulties a and b) and if it is strange that they are terrified of God’s hand (difficulty c), it is stranger still that these two ideas are combined. Consider: on the one hand, they seem to be alleging that absent Moses and Aaron’s intervention, they would have enjoyed the good life in Egypt; but on the other hand, they seem to be alleging that absent Moses and Aaron’s intervention, they would have ‘enjoyed’ a preferred mode of death—at God’s hand rather than starvation. Which is it? How can such diametrically opposed ideas appear in the same complaint? 

Resolving the Puzzle

A close reading of the text offers a solution to the puzzle embedded in the panic at the Wilderness of Sin, and this solution in turn suggests an answer to the deeper question that the people are posing. The key idea is that after the deliverance from Egypt, Israel may recognize God as creator of the world and master of history, but this makes two intertwined theological questions all the more pressing: (i) When God intervenes in history, is He simply a destroyer or is He a more benign benefactor? (ii) If God does destroy those who sin against Him, why is Israel more deserving of His favor than Egypt is?

Let’s consider the first of these intertwined theological questions and why it should be salient to Israel at that moment. To this point in the narrative, Israel has witnessed God act as a destroyer of Egypt, meting out a series of plagues with His “strong hand,” culminating in the drowning of Pharaoh and his army. This has caused Israel to fear God and to proclaim His preeminence. But there is so far little reason for Israel to believe that God’s dominance of history goes beyond destroying those who would dare to defy or rival Him.  After all, the Song of the Sea depicts God as a “man of war” Who is more powerful than all other gods and Who destroys His enemies, thereby clearing a path for Israel. But there is nothing in the song that depicts an active relationship between God and Israel, one where God plays the role of teacher (no hint of Sinai!) or benefactor (no hint of providing water or manna!).

Perhaps this is not such a problem. It might seem attractive for us to accept a world where God acts as a destroyer so long as He is focused on destroying our enemies, those who oppress us or block us from assuming our rights to the Promised Land. But then comes the second problem: why are we so sure that this all-powerful destroyer won’t turns His wrath on us as well? That question shouldn’t concern us if we are confident we have done well by the divine destroyer. But has Israel done well by God?

Nowhere in the Torah does it say that Israel behaved well in Egypt (or during the Exodus). The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 23:2) states: “These [Egyptians] and those [Israelites] are uncircumcised. These grow their hair long and those grow their hair long. These wear garments of wool and linen and those wear garments of wool and linen. Thus, the attribute of justice would not have permitted Israel to be redeemed from Egypt.” There is also a Kabbalistic notion that the Israelites had descended to the forty-ninth level of impurity. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag argues persuasively that this theme is already apparent in Tanakh, particularly in Ezekiel 20:5-8, which records that Israel had succumbed to idol worship in Egypt. And while forty years after the Exodus Moses relates that “we cried out to God” (Deuteronomy 26:7), in fact the Torah describes only anguished cries that are undirected (Exodus 2:23). Moses himself stresses that the people have behaved poorly from “the day he has known (them)”—i.e., from the time of their enslavement in Egypt (Deuteronomy 9:24).

To be sure, Israel deserves credit for believing Moses and Aaron when they first report that God is coming to save them (Exodus 4:31), even though they quickly get cold feet; and Israel deserves some credit for publicly declaring God’s dominion by sacrificing an Egyptian god and painting their doorposts with its blood. But who wouldn’t do this after seeing what God the destroyer had already done in the prior nine plagues? After all, by the end, many Egyptians are heeding God’s word (9:20; 10:8). It is only Pharaoh who remains stubborn, and God has hardened his heart!

Overall, it is at best ambiguous whether Israel has been faithful to God. In fact, Israel’s record is considerably more discomfiting—involving sins “against their fellow man” as well as “sins before God.”[i] But before we examine this record, let’s first consider what might have made Israel engage in such introspection.

In particular, I propose that in Marah, Elim, and at the point of their arrival at the Wilderness of Sin, Israel saw and experienced things that would have led them to ponder these questions.[ii] Consider in particular their sojourn at Elim, which was just prior to the panic of the Wilderness of Sin. What might have happened at Elim to precipitate such a panic as soon as they left and entered the wilderness?

The text gives us three clues.

The first clue is that they came to Elim shortly after their stay at Marah. It seems natural that one of the things they would have done at Elim is to think carefully about the challenge that God had just set before them at Marah. After laying down enigmatic rules (perhaps concerning the allocation of water)[iii] and “testing” the people’s obedience to them, God proclaims: “If you listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and what is correct in His eyes you shall do, and if you heed His commandments, all the sickness that I put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the Lord your healer” (Exodus 15:26).

God is here introducing Himself as both a source of “tests” and as the source of human sickness and healing. Moreover, God is providing a strict and somewhat ambiguous standard for avoiding such sickness. Since the Torah and its relatively detailed laws had not yet been given, and since God had heretofore spoken only to Moses, how exactly was Israel to live up to the standard of “heeding God’s word, and doing what is correct in His eyes?” I don’t know about you, but if an all-powerful destroyer were to tell me that I am likely to suffer from sickness unless I meet a high, ambiguous ethical/legal standards, I would be terrified I was doomed to fail.

Now let’s consider the second hint of what they might have pondered at Elim. The text tells us that while they were there, they had the benefit of 12 springs and 70 date palm trees.

Let’s say you’re a child and you notice the 12 springs and 70 date palms that God had given you. You might ask your parent, “What is the significance of 12 and 70?” Your parent might think about it, she might ask around, and soon the people are collectively pondering the question. As many commentators note, the significance of 12 seems obvious: 12 tribes!

But what about 70? Rashi and others suggest that it hints at the seventy elders. But no mention of 70 elders has yet occurred in the text (the first is in Numbers 11:24), and it’s not clear what such symbolism has to do with the 12 tribes. Here’s a more straightforward idea: 70 stands for “70 souls”—the family of Jacob/Israel who left Canaan for Egypt, who were divided into 12 tribes (Genesis 46:27; cf. Deuteronomy 10:22).

The complementary symbolism of the 12 tribes and 70 souls who were lured down to Egypt should surely prod Israel to ponder their collective history. And if they do so, there is ample reason for them to become quite uncomfortable. Beyond the fact that they did little to distinguish themselves in Egypt in their service to God, they should recall the sibling rivalry that led the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery, and which was never fully resolved by the end of Genesis.

In addition, they should also recall that at the same time that Joseph saved their family from famine, the Egyptian people had good reason to be resentful of this. Israel was treated very well—eating bread “to their fill” (לשבע just as in the years of plenty) with nothing demanded in return. Egyptians were selling themselves into slavery because they were starving for bread (see the sharp juxtaposition of Genesis 47:12 with Genesis 47:13)!

To be sure, this form of servitude was milder than what Israel later endured. And to be sure, Joseph and his brothers may have had no alternative but become Pharaoh’s tools in the disenfranchisement of the Egyptian populace. But if they consider how they grew from 70 people to such a large congregation/community, they might recall that they prospered and multiplied precisely when the Egyptian populace was under great pressure (compare Genesis 47:13-26 with 47:27). They might even begin to wonder whether their own enslavement had been just desserts.

Finally, as Israel enters the Wilderness of Sin, they are provided with yet another powerful mnemonic device—the full moon, which should remind them of the evening of the tenth plague one month before.[iv] Indeed, one imagines that their memories were first jogged by the new crescent moon on the first of the second month.

At that point, they would presumably be prompted to recall how carefully they had monitored the moon’s progress from the moment the calendar and commandment of the paschal lamb were first declared until it was finally the tenth of the month, when they took a major social risk (compare Exodus 8:22) by setting aside an Egyptian god for slaughter on the fourteenth. The four days leading up to full moon must then have passed excruciatingly slowly. And when the moment finally came, they feasted on meat while Egypt resounded with the anguished cries of the non-Israelite households. The Egyptians then ushered Israel out of the country to prevent further death and the Egyptians acceded to Israel’s request to ‘borrow’ their property (Exodus 12:33-35).

As the moon of the second month led Israel to recall this sequence of events, would it not induce discomfort? In reviewing these events, was it clear to them why individual Egyptians—who, after all, would have had little ability to challenge Pharaoh’s oppressive system—deserved such punishment and humiliation while Israel deserved freedom and deliverance?

Let us now clarify how the proposed approach addresses each of the difficulties raised above:

 

  1. They panicked because they are suffering from a form of survivors’ guilt and fear that they don’t deserve God’s favor.
  2. Since they don’t expect God to help them, they turn to Moses and Aaron.
  3. The focus is on the collective because the problematic events that put them in this situation was a collectively shared family history. They are in this together.
  4. The wilderness is emphasized because it connotes a place where survival is impossible without God’s intervention (Genesis 16:7, 21:14; Deuteronomy 8:2-17).[v]
  5. The full moon of the second month is mentioned because it reminds Israel of its last night in Egypt, a moment when Israel ate meat while their Egyptian neighbors were losing their first-born children and animals and having their property stripped.

Finally, we have clarified the formulation of their complaint. The complaint can be read as follows:

You must save us for we are no better than the Egyptians! After all, we ate meat while they suffered, and earlier we ate bread to our satisfaction and prospered while they starved and slipped into servitude. The Egyptians may have taken revenge with an even more oppressive regime, but is that the fault of individual Egyptians? And if we are any better, are we sufficiently better that we are likely to attain the high standard set by God at Marah? No! On our merits, we deserved to die by God’s hand in Egypt, just as the Egyptian first-born did. Why did you take us out here to the wilderness, and get our hopes up? God will surely leave us to die of starvation now!

More deeply, the people are issuing a difficult theological challenge: If God exists and intervenes in the world, and if He judges us (determining life and death, health and illness) based on our ability to reach high ambiguous standards of ethical behavior, we are surely doomed. And if we are not doomed, how can we say that God is just?

 God’s Response

The full response to this challenge, by God and by Moses and Aaron, is quite extensive, so we will focus on unpacking the short initial response (with a little help from Moses in Deuteronomy):

 And God said to Moses, ‘Behold I will now rain for you food/bread from the heavens; and the people will go out and collect every day; this is so that I will test them as to whether they will follow my instruction or not. And it will be on the sixth day, and they will prepare all that they bring, and it will be double what they collect each day (Exodus 16:4-7).

The heart of God’s response is to introduce the cycle of manna and Sabbath (represented by a double portion to tide them over the short God-created ‘famine’ that will follow). In short, God is declaring that He is not a destroyer but a sustainer,[vi] One Who can be expected to provide food for the people on a regular basis, along with a regular pause to remind us that He is the source of that food. As I argued in an earlier Lehrhaus essay, the experience of manna/Sabbath provides Israel with a unique experience of God as creator. This experience encompasses both the first account of creation, where human beings are enjoined to emulate God, and the second account of creation, where human beings are challenged to form direct relationships with God.[vii]

Notably, the root used here for rain is מטר. In every instance in the Hebrew Bible where the root is used, it denotes God’s supernatural intervention in history. This is the fifth time the root is used in the Torah. The three most immediate past uses of the root refer to God as destroyer: the flood (Genesis 7:4); Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24); and the plague of hail (Exodus 9:18). And so, if we are following the use of the term, we have good cause to wonder whether, after Eden, God intervenes only to destroy. God is now declaring that the answer is no. In setting in motion the manna/Shabbat, God is hearkening to the very first use of מטר: to denote God’s role as sustainer in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:5).

But God’s response goes beyond affirming that He is a sustainer rather than a destroyer. It also hints at answers to the questions of why Israel is more deserving than Egypt and how Israel can attain the high ethical standards set by God.

The answer to the first question is that (as Moses reinforces throughout the book of Deuteronomy) Israel is not more deserving of God’s favor than anyone else. Rather, Israel is being given a clean slate. As former slaves, they have been fully stripped of whatever delusions of glory and status their forebears once had. They enter Canaan just as Adam and Eve entered the world beyond Eden: shaped by the experience of being clothed and fed directly by God (Deuteronomy 8:3-4).

God is thus redirecting Israel’s eyes from its checkered past to its open future, a future in which it is possible to do right by one another and by other people even if their forebears had not. While “testing” can be scary if applied to past sins, it contains a certain amount of hope if applied to future actions, as long as the testing standard is attainable.

God’s response provides good news in this regard as well. Note that the word נסיון has broader meaning than “test,” encompassing “trials” and “training.” The egalitarian system dictated by the manna/Shabbat regime is instructive in this regard as it disciplines the people to limit social competition. Moreover, the consequences of the initial test are relatively benign: God expresses frustration when “some of the people” go out to collect manna on Shabbat, but that is the extent of it (Exodus 16: 22-30). Perhaps it is understandable that his children would need some time to develop trust in this new system. Later in Deuteronomy (8:2-5), Moses captures the essence of the relationship that is first forged here:

 And you should recall the whole path along which God made you travel these forty years in the wilderness; in order to afflict you and test you, to discern what is in your heart, whether you will indeed follow his commandments or not. And he afflicted you and starved you and He fed you the manna that you hadn’t known—and neither had your fathers known; in order to inculcate in you the lesson that it is not by bread alone that man lives, but by all that comes from God’s mouth that man lives. Your garment did not wear out from upon you and your leg did not become weary, these forty years. And you came to know in your heart that it is just as a man trains his son, so does the Lord your God train you.

In returning to the “testing” theme first invoked by God in Marah and then in the Wilderness of Sin, Moses conjures the image of a stern but caring parent—one who cares for her child’s survival and for the development of their character. This is what ultimately redeems Israel: not their past good deeds but their willingness and ability to abide by God’s teaching and training. The experience in the wilderness is meant to be a training period, one that prepares Israel for entry into the land where God will rain (מטר) upon them, thereby allowing them to live off the land and not starve, just as long as Israel abides by the Torah and the ethical standards it demands (Deuteronomy 11:11-17; 28:12, 28:24).[viii]

Moreover, having taught the Torah to Israel and trained Israel to live by it for forty years, Moses is surely credible when he returns a final time to the question of what it means to “listen to God’s voice” at the close of the Torah (Deuteronomy 30:10). Moses (Israel’s other parent; Numbers 11:12[ix]) emphasizes that God’s commandments are not ambiguous but detailed in “this book” he is leaving them. And he proclaims that God’s commandments are not unattainable— “in heaven” or “the other side of the sea” —but are “very close to you, in your mouths and your hearts to do” (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Finally, since these commandments are not only attainable but wise (Deuteronomy 4:6), they provide a path to life rather than death. Moses’s response to the complaint of the Wilderness of Sin is thus straightforward: “Choose life!” One does so by “loving the Lord God and cleaving to Him” (30:20).

Contrast this moment with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. After the crossing, Israel may have been in awe of God’s might but it is hard to imagine them feeling love for God. By contrast, love for God seems possible and even natural after forty years of God’s stern but caring parenthood.

Conclusion

In short, the Torah’s answer to the question of what relationship we should seek with God is captured in this image of love for a stern but caring parent. This is a parent who is less concerned with whether our past actions were up to standard than with providing us with an environment and framework for facilitating our ethical growth towards higher standards. Surely what it means to have faith in God means more than simply to believe God exists but to believe that He is helping to guide our growth in this manner.

In particular, this is what the divine gift of the Shabbat/week is designed to accomplish as is the Torah more generally. For those of us who are fortunate to have experienced these gifts as such, faith remains difficult but perhaps not impossible. It is often difficult to see justice in the world, and we may even feel guilty when we seem undeserving of our health and prosperity. But if we are blessed with a set of shared principles and practices that guide us to a higher standard in our behavior towards others, we have an opportunity to emulate God and be His partner in enhancing our world’s capacity to enhance life and uphold justice. This in turn instills love in one another (Leviticus 19:18) and in God.

[i] The Torah’s silence on Israel’s merit is even louder when one considers that Noah is explicitly described as a “righteous man” (Genesis 6:9, 7:1) and was apparently saved for that reason; and Abraham is contrasted with Sodom’s wickedness in that God expects he will teach his children “righteousness and justice” (18:19; cf., 15:6). By contrast, Israel in Egypt is never described as righteous—nor are they described as wicked. Adding to the ambiguity, in response to the destructive plague of hail, Pharaoh calls *God* “the righteous one” and when he says that “his people” are wicked, he could be including Israel (Exodus 9:27). That the Torah does not attempt to clear up the ambiguity is noteworthy.

[ii] Such mnemonics seem to be important devices in Biblical stories. In particular: (a) As argued by Rabbi David Fohrman, elements of Pharaoh’s dream appear designed to make Joseph think of his personal history; (b) Joseph appears to have designed a scenario that would put his brothers against one another in order to induce them to recognize that they had turned against him many years before [Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky on Genesis 42:19-21]; and (c) in sending a gift that recalls the Ishmaelites’ wares (compare Genesis 43:11 with Genesis 37:25), Jacob appears to be signaling to Joseph that Jacob suspects Joseph is the viceroy who has imprisoned Simeon.

[iii] See Yaakov Medan, Ki Karov Elekha: Shemot (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth, 2014), 216-18.

[iv] It is interesting to note that “Sin” means “moon” in Babylonian.

[v] Note also how the Torah goes out of its way to note that “the wilderness” (Genesis 37:22) is the setting for the episode—the sale of Joseph—that led Israel down its problematic path.

[vi] Accordingly, by the time of Numbers 11:23, the meaning of “the hand of God” has been transformed to mean He Who sustains with food.

[vii] Rabbi Gad Eldad’s analysis complements the argument developed here. He suggests that the experience of the manna is not simply a reenactment of Eden but a recalibration of humankind’s search for knowledge (of God).

[viii] Notably, the foundation for these standards is the memory of Israel’s standing as slave and foreigner in Egypt and the corresponding injunction to treat the poor, the weak, and the foreigner with compassion and charity (Deuteronomy 5:11-14; 10:18-19; 14:22-29; 15:12-18; 16:9-14; 23:8; 24:12-24:22; 26:11-13; 27:19; 29:10; 31:12).

[ix] In personal communication, Elli Fischer helpfully points out how the text subtly hints at God and Moses’s provision of manna and water as mother’s milk (see Numbers 11:1-15, Sifrei ad loc., Deuteronomy 32:13-14, and Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah 4:13; also see my analysis of the widow of Zarephath from 1 Kings 17); Fischer also referenced Rabbi Ari Kahn’s complementary analysis.

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Ezra Sivan
Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he currently serves as deputy dean with responsibility for faculty affairs. Among his current research projects is a book on the emergence of the seven-day week. Ezra is the immediate past president of the Young Israel of Brookline in Brookline, MA. He welcomes feedback at ewzucker@mit.edu and he tweets at @ewzucker.