Research on the “variety effect” proves what most of us know after partaking of a smorgasbord. People tend to eat more when there are more options. When the color, flavor, or shape of a food is varied, we ingest more than if it isn’t. Perhaps unsurprisingly, variety-related eating habits are linked to obesity.
After over a year of consuming manna, Bnei Yisrael had enough. Yes, it looked nice and tasted good, but the Jews wanted meat. They remembered with fondness the fish they ate in Egypt chinam (for free), as well as the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. Yet upon analysis, we are left wondering: Are cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic really that superior to manna? Was the food in Egypt really that free and easy to come by that it beat the convenience of food falling from the sky?
The Midrash, cited by Rashi, is convinced that a deeper motivation lay behind Bnei Yisrael’s complaint. Bnei Yisrael couldn’t be longing for free food in Egypt because, says the Midrash, there was no free food in Egypt. The Egyptians made them work tirelessly to find their own straw to make their own bricks; the Egyptians weren’t exactly in the business of handing out free food.
Thus, behind Bnei Yisrael’s complaints, either consciously or subconsciously, was a more serious protest. They missed, not the free food, but the freedom from divine restraints. In Egypt, they had no mitzvot, and now they were constrained by rules and regulations.
Unlike the Midrash, the Ramban understands “chinam” at face value. In Egypt, he suggests, Bnei Yisrael did have easy access to food. If they worked next to the Nile, they were allowed to catch and eat fish. If they worked in the fields, there was such an abundance of food that the field owners allowed Bnei Yisrael to eat what they liked as they gathered crops.
Yes, they had to work, but they could eat whenever they wanted because food was so plentiful and available. Manna was also free, but it was not always available. Bnei Yisrael could only get a controlled portion according to a specific schedule. The Meshech Chochma writes that they could even eat meat, but only in the Ohel Moed. So, there was plenty of free food, but there were also restrictions.
Perhaps Bnei Yisrael also disliked the monotony of the manna. It was the same food, every day. Their nostalgia over cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic was not about taste, but variety. The Netziv proposes that the foods they requested represent different courses. Instead of just having one course of manna, Bnei Yisrael wanted appetizers, dips, and dessert to go along with it.
But Hashem wishes to teach Bnei Yisrael controlled, scheduled, spiritually-motivated eating. Bnei Yisrael rebelled and complained because they desired the unbounded, unrestricted, smorgasbord variety of eating they were used to in Egypt.
Today, we too may crave variety and freedom from constraints (in reference to food and other contexts). But the manna – and the negative ramifications of Bnei Yisrael complaining – teaches us that it is beneficial to curb this craving. In so doing, may we merit living healthier lives – psychologically, physically, and spiritually.