Sitting around our own dinner table, we are astounded at how differently four individuals can perceive taste. Some absolutely detest what others love, and our tastes change dramatically over our lifetimes.
This week, in perhaps one of the Torah’s most well-known scenes, God parts the Red Sea so the Israelites can cross to freedom. It doesn’t take long for the victory celebrations to turn to grumblings of hunger. God appeases the Israelites by sending them manna in the desert. It fell like dew in the morning and mysteriously disappeared during the day, and has been thought to be the sap of the tamarisk tree that melts in the heat of the day.
The midrash expands upon the taste of manna. “God brought down for them the manna, in which all kinds of flavors lodged, so that each Israelite could taste in it anything they particularly liked” (Exodus Rabbah 25:3). The young men ate it as bread. To the elderly it tasted like wafers made with honey. To infants it tasted like milk from their mothers’ breasts. To the sick it was like fine flour mingled with honey. To the heathen its taste was bitter like coriander seed. Even though it was all of “one kind,” the manna “became converted into so many kinds to suit the capacity of each individual” (Ex. Rabbah 5:9).
According to these midrashim, God goes beyond merely providing for the hungry Israelites as a collective. God recognizes that this developing nation consists of individuals. Even though they suffered the hardships of slavery as a group, they each carry individual stories, pains and triumphs. Each tastes in a different way.
The midrash drives this point home, connecting the experience of the Israelites in the desert to the upcoming revelation of the Ten Commandments. Not only did the manna taste different to each of them, God’s voice from Mount Sinai came to each person standing at the foot of the mountain in a distinct way as well. Paralleling the story of the manna, the voice came forth proportioned to the individual strength of each Israelite; to the old, to the young, to children, to babies, to women, to pregnant women, and lastly to Moses — in each case acknowledging that individuals heard that voice differently.
The midrash cleverly links the pitiful, whining scene in the desert to the uplifting, revelatory climax of the Exodus narrative. In both instances, not only is difference of perspective tolerated — God embraces plurality and, one could argue, even celebrates it.
Furthermore, the midrash recognizes that our sense of taste and experience changes over time. Of course, this is literally true in that how we taste food morphs over time. But figuratively, our realities change as well, and we wonder what an earlier version of ourselves would say about who we have become.
It is remarkable that a tradition so heavily focused on the collective contains such early texts that prize the individual, recognizing a plurality of perspectives and needs within that greater community. In fact, difference is built into our tradition. In the Talmud, conflicting interpretations of texts often stand side by side, because each individual, each stream of thought, each generation, has a unique viewpoint.
Why would we expect ourselves to experience life, truth or God in the same way? We all eat the same manna, but it tastes dramatically different to each of us. According to tradition, we all stood at Mount Sinai, but what we heard and experienced there differs widely. What we see as our mandate as Jews that issued forth from that voice can be so divergent that it sometimes feels like we couldn’t possibly have been standing at the same mountain. In the Jewish community, there is often an assumption that because we are connected and interconnected, we must speak with one voice, champion the same agendas. Whether we are talking about Israel, intermarriage or our upcoming election, let’s strive in the year ahead to appreciate each other’s unique tastes and experiences, and listen to the narratives that influence us. By doing so, we will strengthen our collective.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of the new book “Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives” (SkyLight Paths). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.