Bamidbar

No Milk, No Trust

Milk
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Beth Kissileff

What is Moses’ complaint when he says that he cannot nurse or carry the Israelite people (Numbers 11:12)? This complaint is in response to the people’s demand for meat, the penultimate test of the ten times the Israelites tested God in the wilderness (Bartenura to Avot 5:4). For many of the earlier tests, including the one immediately prior to this one, Moses successfully prays to God on behalf of the people. So why does Moses resist interceding for the Israelites when they ask here for meat (Numbers 11:4), and what does his response tell us about his character and fitness for leadership? Something in this demand leads Moses to state emphatically what he is incapable of providing to the Israelites.  When this grievance is brought to him, he feels that the demands of his job have become beyond what he can impart to the people. Moses tells God that he is physically unable to do what he thinks is being asked of him. But Moses’ idea about his role and his capabilities for it may be part of his problem as a leader.

If we think about the book of Numbers as the opportunity for God to teach the people of Israel trust, so that they are readied for their transition from slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the land of Israel, then the job of the leader is to be encouraging of that goal. The giving of the Torah at Sinai enables the Israelites both to live in a particular way with Jewish law and also to access the most optimal human traits as fully as possible. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg takes a psychoanalytic approach to many texts she analyzes; in her discussion of Numbers she explicates attachment theories of children and parents and how they engender trust and enable the child to eventually function autonomously; the time in the wilderness prepares the Israelites for the new role they will have in the land of Israel. In the words of Zornberg, “The midbar is an inner condition, which challenges the individual to become human. The most sublime experiences contain that ‘wilderness energy,’ the primal forces out of which one generates a larger humanity. The theater of that struggle is called midbar.”[1] Moses then is the one to be at the forefront of enabling the people in the wilderness to learn to access the primal energy that can be found there. Yet he explicitly rejects his role.

Moses’ complaint is that what he is being asked to do is wholly unnatural. He pleads to God that he did not conceive this people, nor did he bear them, and he certainly is unable to physically nurture them and carry them: “Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as an omen (nurse)[2] carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12). However, upon examination, the claim that the role God has put him in is unnatural is suspect.

Moses is not the only person to be cast in the role of nurturer who one might think is biologically incapable of feeding a child. For example, Naomi emphasizes to her daughters-in-law that she is past her childbearing years (Ruth 1:11), and yet she embraces the role which she chooses for herself as nurturer (omenet) to the child of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4:16). This role is all the more remarkable because the child, Oved, is biologically related to her late husband Elimelekh through his kinship with Boaz, but has no biological link to Naomi herself.

Yet another biblical figure appearing to be biologically unable to nurse and yet still providing suckle is Mordecai, who nursed Esther, as described in Genesis Rabbah (30:8): “R. Yudan said: On one occasion [Mordecai] went round to all the wet nurses but could not find one for Esther, so he himself suckled her. R. Berekiah and R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Eleazar: Milk came to him and he suckled her [and he never even tried to find a wet nurse].” This story, where a number of options for a nurse were tried and the most suitable was a close relative, parallels the midrash in Sotah 12b that Moses refused to nurse from Egyptian women. The Gemara asks why the daughter of Pharaoh sought a wet nurse among the Hebrews (Exodus 2:7-9), and responds that

prior to this, they took Moses around to all the Egyptian wet nurses and he did not agree to nurse from any of them, as he said: “Shall a mouth that in the future will speak with the Divine Presence actually nurse something impure?” And this is as it is written: “Whom shall one teach knowledge? And whom shall one make understand the message?” (Isaiah 28:9). The prophet is asking: To whom shall God teach the knowledge of the Torah, and to whom shall God make to understand the message of the Torah? The answer is as the verse continues: “Them that are weaned from the milk, them that are drawn from the breasts” (ibid.). The conclusion of the verse indicates that the Torah should be taught to the one who did not want to nurse from the milk of a gentile woman, i.e., Moses.[3]

There is a certain level of irony that Moses, who was so careful about his own nurse, now refuses to play the role of wet nurse to the Israelite people.

A look at other places in Hazal where men find themselves in a position of nurturer can help us understand the validity of Moses’ complaints. The Talmud in Shabbat 53b tells the story of a man whose wife has died and left him a son to nurse. Without money for a wet nurse, “a miracle was performed on his behalf, and he developed breasts like the two breasts of a woman, and he nursed his son.” This is not the only place in the Talmud where male lactation is mentioned; there is reference to milk from male goats in Hullin 113b. Are Hazal’s statements scientifically possible, or are they just a metaphor? Dr. Jeremy Brown discusses this question in his Talmudology blog, writing that “there are other mammalian species in which the male has been known to lactate, including sheep, rats, free-ranging Dayak fruit bats in Malaysia and the masked flying fox bats of Papua New Guinea. Male lactation was also recorded in World War II prisoner of war camps when malnourished detainees were later liberated and provided with adequate nutrition.” Brown concludes that male lactation “is, at least in theory, an entirely natural event [emphasis mine].” Thus, at least according to Hazal as supported by science, Moses’ complaint that he can’t nurse the Israelites is not without merit.

If we assume then that theoretically Moses could have nursed the people, whether physically or metaphorically, what does his refusal here say about his understanding of which parts of his role as leader and nurturer he is willing to accept?

Moses’ explicit rejection of his ability to nurture can be seen as a precursor to his cursing at the people, calling them rebels and then striking the rock (Numbers 20:10-12). Really, what Moses is saying by distancing himself from the people by labeling them “rebels” (Numbers 20:10) is that he no longer wishes to connect himself to them. At a time when the Israelites want more variety in their food, Moses explicitly says he will not nurse them; when they need water he cannot give it to them without anger and verbal and physical violence. While Moses claims that he is unable to provide for the Israelites, there are in fact things he could have done; for example, he could have suggested ways to cook the  manna to enable it to taste more like meat, or reminded the people that even though they are frustrated, God is providing for them. He could even correct their faulty memories of the ease with which they got sustenance in Egypt – they claim that the food they ate in Egypt was “free” (Numbers 11:5), but in fact they performed backbreaking labor to earn it (Exodus 1:13). However, Moses does not do what he can, even in some kind of incremental way, to help those he is tasked with leading, his response showing a total lack of empathy to the Israelites’ needs.

The people are complaining about the food they are given. But this same food is part of the trust-inducing plan of God for them in the midbar, teaching them that they will be provided for each and every day. The complaints of the people about lack of variety in their diet are without merit. The food itself is fungible, lending itself to being prepared in a variety of ways, by being grounded or pound, boiled, or made into cakes (Numbers 11:8). As well, there is an assortment of tastes with the food God sends the Israelites. The taste of the manna is compared to something thick and delicious (Numbers 11:8), which the Talmud in Yoma 75a suggests is comparable to breast milk: “Rabbi Abbahu said: ‘Shad’ (Numbers 11:8) means breast. Just as a baby tastes different flavors from the breast, so too with the manna, every time that the Jewish people ate the manna, they found in it many flavors, based on their preferences.” Essentially, God is the one nursing the people, providing nourishment that is explicitly compared to the milk a baby drinks from a mother’s breast. If so, why is Moses so upset about his role? He is not in fact called upon to nurse the people; God is doing that already!

Moses’ refusal to nurture the people, or even to simply encourage them to enjoy the manna, is essentially a devaluation or even rejection of the role of nurturer. Ultimately, he even entreats God to kill him (Numbers 11:15) because of his inability to “bear” the people by himself (11:14). One might see what Moses is doing in these verses as a critique of the feminine body and its ability to bear children and nourish them.[4] However, this criticism actually becomes one of Moses himself because of his refusal to participate in the process of bearing and nurturing the people; to be an ‘omen’ (nursing father) is clearly part of his refusal to teach them emunah, trust, which comes from the same root word. The process of developing trust is the hallmark of why the people must spend forty years wandering in this desert. God is willing to bear, nurse, and nourish the people; it is Moses’ refusal of that role and denigration of it that makes him unfit to be the leader who is going to increase their attachment to and trust in God during this time in the midbar. A nursing mother teaches her baby trust and fosters attachment. It is Moses’ disparagement of the role and its importance that shows that he is unfit for leadership.

In many situations, including the current one with the coronavirus, feminine leadership qualities enable better outcomes for countries with female political leaders.[5] As Louise Champoux- Paille and Anne-Marie Croteau write in their article “Why women leaders are excelling during the coronavirus pandemic,” “This new type of leadership primarily involves resilience, courage, flexibility, listening, empathy, collaboration, caring and recognition of collective contribution. The participation of everyone’s intelligence becomes the key to success. These are all characteristics of traditionally feminine management.” Moses’s refusal of feminine traits that might have led to better outcomes made it impossible for him to properly manage the various outbreaks in the desert.

What keeps Moses from being a leader who might engender more trust in those he is trusted to lead? Avivah Zornberg says that when Moses negates his ability to be an omen he is expressly limiting himself from the possibilities of the role God has given him as wilderness guide.  Zornberg writes, “In one moment of imaginative genius, [Moses] frames his constancy and compassion, merging self and other. In such a relation, he would indeed be an omen, a source of unbounded nurturance, of emunah, of trustworthiness. As such, he could not fail to elicit a responsive trust from them. But the very words in which he articulates this image undermine its force. Framed in rhetorical questions – ‘Did I conceive this people, did I bear them?’ his fantasy of himself is deflected from the outset. Even as a fantasy, it is not viable.”[6] The non-viability even of Moses’ briefly-posited role for himself as nurturer is yet another reason why his leadership too is becoming unsuitable. Moses raises the possibility that he might nourish the people in a way that promotes trust and attachment, only to immediately reject it as inconceivable. Had Moses thought that part of his role as leader was to nourish in a way that would foster emunah, trust, in the people he might have entered the Promised Land. It is his refusal both to physically sustain the Israelite people, as well as to encourage their faith that shows he is unfit to continue as a leader. Given the entirety of the character traits of Moses as leader, we see that even imagining himself in the role of procreator, bearer, nurturer, and carrier of this people is a non-starter which ultimately leads to his removal from his role.

During the forty years in the desert, God wants to train the Israelites in faith. This training started with the understanding that manna will be a constant like mother’s milk, a food to soothe, comfort and nourish all at once, the substance itself a stand-in for the physical presence of God. Just as a mother must be physically present to nurse a child, God in providing manna is promising God’s continued presence. Moses wants no part of either nourishing or creating an atmosphere where the people will be able to feel God’s presence. Perhaps it is a lack of faith in himself and his own abilities, as we have seen at every stage of his commission as leader that he has excuses such as stuttering, why he cannot speak or lead, that disables him from taking on the nurturer role. The negation of the specifically female traits of being an omen, a nurturer or wet nurse, and of physically bearing the people, with concomitant positive empathetic and collaborative attributes connected with women leaders, is the very thing that makes Moses unfit to continue as leader.

God is portrayed as like a mother and a nurse, but Moses will not embrace those roles. Jordan Rosenblum, in an article about the role of breastfeeding in rabbinic literature,[7] writes, “Fortunately, unlike a human nurse from whom one receives physical milk for only the first two or three years of life, God is a nurse who nurtures for the entirety of one’s life.” Moses does not instill or encourage trust, so his role as leader is diminished. Though the final declaration of the sentence against Moses comes through his refusal to get water appropriately at the waters of Merivah in Numbers 20, his inability to give milk here in Numbers 11 plays a significant role in signaling to God that a new leadership style needs to be sought.


[1] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the book of Numbers (Schocken, 2017), 88. See also Zornberg, Moses: A Human Life (Yale University Press, 2016).

[2] Other places in the Hebrew Bible where the word omen is used for ‘nursing man’ are II Kings 10:1,5 and Isaiah 49:23.

[3] Translation from Sefaria. The parallel between Moses and Esther only nursing from a relative makes even clearer the rabbinic idea that adherence to the Torah was completely affirmed only during the time of Esther, based on the verse “the Jews ordained and took upon them” (Esther 9:27). Both Moses and Esther in these parallel midrashim require the same purity in their food since they will both be recipients of Torah.

[4] Another assessment of the feminine body as negative and weak is that of Rashi (following Sifri Bamidbar 91) to Moses’ request to God to kill him (Numbers 11:15). Rashi speaks of the fact that the verse has “you” (at) in the feminine form to “intimate that Moses’ strength grew weak as that of a woman when the Holy one, blessed be He, showed him the punishment which He was to bring in future upon them for this (for their sin).”

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/world/coronavirus-women-leaders.html and https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-the-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders/#354858d93dec, https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/493434-countries-led-by-women-have-fared-better-against, and https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-05-countries-female-leaders-covid-deaths.html

[6] Bewilderments, 80.

[7] Jordan Rosenblum, Blessings of the Breasts’: Breastfeeding in Rabbinic Literature” Hebrew Union College Annual Vol. 87 (2016).