"Bread from Heaven"
Never a dull moment! That may be the best way to describe this week's Torah reading of Beshalach, (Exodus 13:17-17:16). The Israelite escape from Egypt, the hot pursuit by Pharaoh's chariots, the stand-off at the Sea of Reeds, the splitting of the Sea and the glorious Song of the Sea, the destruction of Pharaoh's army, thirst and hunger in the wilderness, water from the rock, the savage attack by Amalek, and, of course, the appearance of the wondrous manna, the "bread from heaven" - it all takes place this week!
No sooner have the children of Israel emerged from under the heel of their Egyptian overlords, than their world seems to become topsey-turvey. What had been a very stable, if malignant environment under Egyptian dominance, has, overnight, become highly turbulent. Having been immersed in a setting where all of life's decisions where beyond their control, they now have become masters of their own fate. Nor does this contradict G-d's purpose in taking them out from Egypt. For, as we will learn, they can only become true servants of HaShem by becoming masters of their own fate. Likewise, they can only become a free people by attaching their destiny to G-d's will.
At one moment Israel is crossing the Sea of Reeds as a united, triumphant people, singing G-d's praise. At another moment they in the desert, hungry, thirsty, divided, and full of misgiving toward Moshe and G-d. G-d addresses their hapless situation by introducing them to the manna - "bread from heaven." He explains, through Moshe, that this dew-like manna will appear each morning upon the surface of the earth. All the people need to do is to go out and gather it. It is of a pure spiritual nature, but it will provide Israel with all its nutritional needs, what we refer to today as a well-balanced meal. Our sages further tell us, in Midrash, that the manna would assume any taste that its consumer would hope for. French toast is your fancy? That's what it will taste like. You prefer a thick steak? Not a problem!
It almost appears as if the brutal take-it-or-leave-it existence of slavery is being replaced by a type of over-the-top heavenly coddling. Certainly this can lead to no good! But there is much more to the manna phenomenon. Moshe continues to instruct the people that they are to gather only the amount of manna required for their families' need. Not more, not less. Anyone who tries to gather more than their requirements and hoard the surplus will be disappointed the following morning when they discover yesterday's manna rotting and inedible. G-d is teaching Israel, via the manna, the rudimentary rules of responsibility to ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our people. Self indulgence is not permitted. Nor is self denial. We are to be conscious of, and considerate of our neighbor's needs. We are to act responsibly and in harmony as we go out to harvest the heavenly bounty each morning. No one is lacking. Social cohesion is coming to Israel. The ragtag throng of runaway slaves that escaped from Egypt is beginning to earn it new title of nation: the nation of Israel.
But still, a major and necessary component of what makes a just society on earth is missing. Torah continues: "And it shall be on the sixth day that when they prepare what they will bring, it will be double of what they gather every day." (ibid 16:5) Here appears Israel's first lesson in observing the holy Sabbath, (Shabbat). They are to gather twice their normal daily requirement on the sixth day, (Friday), and keep the surplus overnight so that they can enjoy it the next morning - still Shabbat! In this manner they acknowledge G-d as creator, and sanctify the Shabbat as His day of rest. And no less essentially, they express their knowledge that the G-d who delivered them from Egypt is the very same G-d of creation - G-d is One!
What is forbidden during the six days of our profane week becomes a sacred responsibility in preparing for Shabbat. In this way we honor our fellow man, and in this way we honor G-d. But truly, both sets of instructions concerning the manna are absolutely necessary, both for the creation of a just civil society and also for the formation of a nation attached with an inseparable bond to G-d. A nation that is fastidious in allocating its resource to its citizens, but allows no place for G-d will soon take on the traits of some of the most hateful and cruel societies that man has ever known. A nation that revels in honoring G-d, but does not honor the dignity of its own people, G-d's children, is not honoring G-d at all, but blaspheming His name.
Just before we read of the manna, while we are hearing of Israel's thirst in Marah, we are told that, "There [G-d] gave them a statute, (Hebrew - chok), and an ordinance, (mishpat), and there He tested them." (ibid 14:25) The Hebrew chok - "statute" - refers to those commandments which create relationships between man and G-d, such as the laws of kashrut, the Temple offerings, the red heifer, and, of course, the Shabbat. Mishpat - "ordinance" - signifies those commandments which direct us as how to behave toward our fellow man, such as the laws which forbid stealing or trespassing, and the laws that insist that we return a lost object, help a neighbor's donkey which is suffering under a heavy load, or refrain from speaking ill of another. "Chok umishpat" - "a statute, and an ordinance," this is the twin lesson of the manna, and these are, in fact, the twin pillars upon which Torah stands, honoring G-d and honoring our fellow man, ultimately honoring ourselves.
Hardly an indulgence, the manna was a "hard tack" teaching device for a nation hungry for sustenance, both physical and spiritual. Consider this well on your next trip to the market!
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Yitzchak Reuven and his special guest host, Tzvi Richman discuss this week's Torah reading of Beshalach, G-d's handing over to Israel the command of time - establishing the new moon, Israel's freedom from slavery - the true test of faith, and all the coaxing the children of Israel require as they take their first steps in the desert. Led and fed by daily miracles as they entered the desert en route to the promised land of Canaan, Israel experiences many seeming lapses of faith. Yet they are known as the generation of knowledge and existed in a spiritual reality far higher than any other generation. What does this teach us about the nature of faith? The nature of man?