We will be reading Genesis 16:11-30 in synagogue this week.
It seems extraordinary that after all the pyrotechnics of the ten plagues and then the parting of the sea, the witnessing of the drowning of the Egyptians – not to mention the constant refrain that it is God who is responsible and looking after the people, - that the first thing that the Israelites do is complain.
‘Would to God we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger’
Complaining is in our nature – particularly complaining about food. Like the joke about the Jewish couple in a restaurant, whose waiter comes up and asks them, ‘Is anything alright?’
But while it is easy to see the ingratitude of a people who have experienced the most miraculous escape in history we have to understand the situation. There is a complex psychological relationship here, between rescuer and rescued. Gratitude is not an easy emotion to maintain and many in the caring professions will tell you of people they have helped whose response is to distance themselves from their saviours or even be quite nasty to them, rather than face the unnatural inequality their past connection has created. Simply put, they do not want to be reminded of past miseries.
Moreover, the Israelites had been slaves. They had not needed to look for food. Whatever the inhumanity of their lives, the fact is, that slaves are provided with food so they can go on working. Now, that they do not work, they do not get food. For the first time, they are having to provide for themselves and they have had no experience of this. It is quite natural from them to ask, ‘How are we going to eat?’ And it is quite natural for God to provide them with a means of sustenance that is not too taxing for them in the first place; to catch quails in the evenings and gather up manna in the mornings.
But then something interesting happens in our portion. Moses tells the people to gather an ‘omer’ – a particular measure of manna per person. The people, however, ignore this advice and gather what they feel like, some more, some less. Moses tells them to ensure they eat it all on the day it is gathered and not leave it overnight. They leave it overnight and are rewarded with a stinking worm-eaten mess. Moses tells them to gather twice as much on the sixth day, but not to go out to gather on the seventh as it is Shabbat and they should rest. They go out on Shabbat looking for manna nevertheless.
The people might have found it hard to adjust to some measures of the new freedoms granted them, but one element of freedom they picked up very quickly indeed; the ability to disobey. Disobedience would have been impossible in Egypt. It would have meant certain death, and the pain of lashes from the overseers whips. Now they disregard everything the Moses says because they can. They have choice and they are exercising it - though not, it would seem very wisely. So from this portion we can see two dominant characteristics that mark the Jewish people to this day; our ability to complain, and our inability to follow rules. Perhaps that is why we have so many of them!