Why did Bnei Yisrael in last week’s parsha start complaining about the man after 40 years in the desert, right on the threshold of entering Eretz Yisrael? For close to 40 years the menu had been the same – man for breakfast, man for lunch, man for supper – and no complaints (aside from at the beginning of the 40 years). If the menu was good enough day in and day out for all that time, why start complaining now?
Chasam Sofer answers (and my son pointed out that R’ Bachyei says something similar) that when Bnei Yisrael first entered the desert, there were complaints because that generation had grown up eating regular food and the switch to man was a shock to the system. The generation that grew up during the 40 years in the desert had never known food other than man. For them, this was the norm! When after 40 years they reached the outskirts of civilization and tasted real food, they suddenly realized what they had been missing.
This explains, writes the Chasam Sofer, the midah k’neged midah of the punishment of nechashim ha’serafim. For 40 years the ananei ha’kavod had smoothed out the road and eliminated any danger from snakes, scorpions, and other creatures of the desert. Hashem was telling Bnei Yisrael that if they don’t like the miracle-food of man – they want the real thing – then they would get reality. The reality is that snakes bite and sting, as they would discover.
When I said this over on Shabbos, my wife added a chiddush of her own. The man freed Bnei Yisrael from having to deal with the kelala given to Adam of “b’zey’as apecha tochal lechem,” having to toil for one’s bread. By transcending the cursed state of Adam, Bnei Yisrael were also freed from having to deal with “v’eivah ashis beincha u’bein ha’isha,” the curse of animosity between the snake and man. Once Bnei Yisrael expressed a desire to come back down to earth and have real bread, i.e. have the “b'zey’as apecha tochal lechem.” Hashem showed them that it was a package deal, and they would now have to deal with the nachash as well.
Speaking of the Chasam Sofer, he is the only source I think I have found that addresses the question of why Miriam deserved to die in the desert and not enter Eretz Yisrael. He quotes from Chazal that lashom ha’ra hurts the one who does the speaking, the one who it is spoken to, and the one spoken about. It was the sin of speaking against Moshe that did Miriam in. Moshe and Aharon, the ones spoken to and about, were also guilty, but they were given a chance to redeem themselves by speaking to the rock. Had they done so, it would have demonstrated to Bnei Yisrael the power of speech, and the danger that comes with misusing words. Since they failed, they too were subject to the punishment that came from Miriam’s lashon ha’ra.