The ComplaintThey were stranded in a vast desert; miles from civilization. The meager provisions, brought along from Egypt, entirely depleted. There was nothing left; not a drop. If they failed to secure food today, their children would go hungry the next day. Under these conditions, why was asking for food wrong? (1) (2)
Nation BuildingIn the last two centuries our finest hour came in the aftermath of World War II. The war had taken an estimated toll of thirty million, Europe lay smoldering in the ashes of ruin and the allied powers staggered under the loss of its youngest, bravest and brightest. The war was won, but at what cost. This could have been the beginning of a long decline, but instead it became our shining moment.
Our parents and grandparents recognized their hour; they set their own concerns aside and set out to rebuild; families, cities, countries and continents. From across the Pacific came the rousing call of a new Japan. From Europe came the rueful stirrings of a chagrined, but determined Germany. England rallied, France flourished and slowly the sun shone again. (3)
The key to success was their willingness to set their own needs aside. They recognized that they could ill afford to be selfish when their country required their contribution and stoic sacrifice. They considered the nation they had to build ahead of the opportunities they might exploit; a sentiment that reached its apex when John F Kennedy intoned his now famous challenge in his 1961 inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Self ObsessedThe last fifty-five years saw an erosion of this ethic. The ethic of nation before self was replaced by the ethos of self before all. The almighty G-d was replaced by the Almighty dollar and the comforts, pleasures and opportunities the dollar brings. I believe that, in the United States, this downfall began, innocently enough, with the civil unrest of the sixties.
The quest for civil rights and equal opportunity regardless of skin color was laudable. That the effort met with success in the span of a short decade is a testament to the resilience of democracy. Yet in the course of this quest the nation paid an unwitting price. They became obsessed with their entitlements. They stopped worrying about national needs and started worrying about personal wants. As a society we have since come to favor our rights over our obligations; freedom over responsibility.
Today we are too obsessed with ourselves to contemplate the sacrifices necessary to build or even maintain a nation. We opt for early retirement and vacation homes over having large families and the work ethic to support them. We clamor for luxury even in economic downturns, we have lost our stomach for war, even defensive ones, and we grumble when asked to tolerate inconveniences for the sake of national security. To our minds, collective freedoms no longer justify the curbing of individual freedoms.
Our parents knew how to build a nation; we have forgotten. In the aftermath of World War II there was no question that our nation was destined for greatness; today’s posture of lethargic indolence raises the question of whether our time is up. The great nations of the past were not defeated by external enemies, but by erosion of national character. Great Britain did not lose the colonies when the United States declared its independence, but when its citizens began to care more about themselves than about their nation.
A Nation In IsraelWhen the Jews entered the Promised Land they understood that building a nation requires personal responsibility and even sacrifice. They thus drafted laws that intertwined the rights of the individual with the needs of the nation. The following are a few brief examples:
Land owners were not permitted to bar the public from walking on private roads during rain season when thoroughfares were muddy. During the dry season, it was similarly permissible to cut through private fields so long as this didn’t damage the seeds. Members of the public were permitted to cut relatively useless branches from private trees for the purpose of planting a sapling in Israel. Though the Kineret Lake was allocated to specific tribes, small net fishing was permissible to all Jews. Wanderers lost in a private vineyard were permitted to climb the vines to find their way out. (4)
These laws were designed to ensure that private ownership of land did not conflict with the collective good. Private ownership was rewarded, but it came with the responsibility to provide for the collective. This responsibility did not preclude the owner from benefiting from his land, but it did require him to serve the greater good when the cost to him was minimal.
The MannaThis national consciousness did not come naturally to our people. In Egypt they were not a nation, but an eclectic group of individuals. When they embarked on their journey for Israel they were on their way to build a nation. This was to be a historic occasion; the creation of a chain marked by the ethos of faith, service, unity and devotion that would last for more than thirty-three-hundred years.
But this could not be accomplished by a people concerned with their own needs, vital though they were. To accomplish this task they had to look beyond the confines of their narrow individual scopes, something they failed to so when they asked for food.
They were hungry so they asked for food. But they were also petulant. They grew angry at the specter of going without and demanded a return to Egypt, where food was plentiful. If this undertaking requires sacrifice, their demand implied, count us out. We will not be deprived. We will not go without. We cannot be depended upon to make the necessary sacrifices. For the first time, their personal needs were pitted against their Divine mandate and their needs appeared to win out.
Fortunately G-d provided a brilliant solution. He provided bread from heaven, which nourished their stomachs and souls at once. The Manna was devoid of material substance, yet it nourished the body, demonstrating that the human is not nourished by the physical, but by the word of G-d; whether it is found in material bread or in spiritual Manna. The inescapable conclusion was that life, which is nourished by G-d, is not worth living without G-d. With this understanding came the realization that abandoning their Divine mandate to return to Egypt was not a worthwhile option.
Because life is another name for G-d, living it is worth every sacrifice.
- Exodus 16: 3. The obvious answer is that they were belligerent in their request when they could have asked with proper respect. Yet, the request itself seemed legitimate (see Rashi’s commentary to Exodus 16: 8)
- See Midrash Tanchumah ch. 20 that worrying about tomorrow when one has enough for today demonstrates a lack of faith. But even at this exalted standard our ancestors could still not be faulted. They only asked for food after their entire store was depleted.
- The glittering success was marred by the emerging threat of an expanding Soviet Union, but this threat was also met. With sober realism, determination and courage.
- Maimonidies, Hilchos Nizkei Mamon, ch. 5.