Beshalach: Torah's Best Food? Miracle Whip

D’var Torah; Shabbat Beshalach
Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D.

February 3-4, 2012 – 10 Shevat 5772

Torah’s Best Food? Miracle Whip

“Man does not live on bread alone,” says Deuteronomy 8:3. And indeed, the Torah is replete with other food references. Which food, at least symbolically, is most important?

Perhaps it is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (never identified in Torah as an apple!) that Adam and Eve ate in violation of G-d’s command. For that action, we were exiled from the Garden of Eden. Perhaps it is matzah, the bread of affliction, symbolizing the haste with which we left Egypt, and the need to purify our lives of chumetz (arrogance, inflated self-esteem, etc.).

Or perhaps the most important and symbolic food is salt, a cleansing and purifying agent (to draw blood out of meat, for example), and without which no meal offering could be brought (Lev. 2:13) and by which the Divine Covenant was confirmed (Num. 18:19, II Chron. 13:5). Or the pascal lamb, the seven species of the Land of Israel, or the milk and honey that flowed there. Or, of course, the wine, symbol of joy and of productive partnership between G-d and man. Or, the bread of display (Exodus 25:30) that adorned the altar of the Temples for the nearly 1,000 years of their existence in Jerusalem. Many other examples could be suggested.

My vote, though, goes to a food that doesn’t even have a real name. When the Israelites first saw it, they asked each other “mahn-hu” – meaning either “what is it?” or “Is it a portion? ” “Mahn” is what they named it, rendered “manna” in English. Moses had to explain: “It is the bread that YHWH has given you for eating.” (Exodus 16:15). The Torah describes it as “bread” (16:12) visible when the dew of morning evaporated. Common translations of its physical description, such as “scale-like,” “flaky,” or “round,” are highly speculative, as the word being translated -- מְחֻסְפָּס -- appears nowhere else in the Bible. It was “like coriander seed…white” (16:31) but coriander seed is not white, so that comparison was apparently to another characteristic.

More important than manna’s appearance were its special qualities. An omer (a standard unit measure) of manna was gathered for each person; yet, according to Rashi, “When they got home and measured what they had gathered, they found that those who gathered much had not gathered more than one omer per person, and those who gathered little found no less than an omer per person. This was a great miracle.” And although any manna not consumed during five weekdays immediately spoiled, the extra portion gathered before Shabbat remained wholesome! Moreover, not only were the Israelites prohibited from gathering it on Shabbat, they couldn’t, because G-d provided none on that day.

How did manna taste? According to our sages, it tasted like “‘wafer’ in honey” (16:31) to children, like “rich cream” (Numbers 11:8) to the elderly, and like bread to everyone in between. (Talmud, Yoma, 75b). According to a midrash, it tasted like whatever one wanted. Others have suggested that it tasted differently – or perhaps satisfied different tastes -- depending upon how it was prepared, just as many foods do when eaten raw, ground, crushed, boiled, roasted, pureed, etc.

What can we learn from the Torah’s account of this literally miracle food that, along with quail for dinner (since man does not eat bread alone), sustained us in the desert?

Each of our lives constitutes a journey of unknown length and unpredictable circumstances. We can regard the periods of uncertainty, difficulty, stress, and poor health in our lives as time(s) spent in personal wilderness. During such periods, we are likely to wistfully recall better times, “the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the green-leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (Numbers 11:5). At such times, we may view what remains to us only as non-descript manna. But the account of “manna from heaven” can remind us that, if we are willing, we can “process” what we still have – the essential portion of life’s necessities that we still receive every day -- into something pleasing and fulfilling. Each new day brings us the challenge and opportunity to have faith that, tomorrow, G-d will grant us what is truly essential for satisfying sustenance.

The disciples of R. Simeon ben Yohai asked him: Why did the manna not come down for Israel just once a year? He replied: Let me answer you with the parable of a mortal king who had a son. When the king provided him with his sustenance once a year, the son visited his father only once a year. When the father began to provide him with his sustenance daily, the son had to call on his father every day. So it was with Israel. If an Israelite had, say, four or five children, he would worry, saying: Perhaps the manna will not come down tomorrow, and all my children will die of hunger. And so [because the manna was coming down daily] the Israelites were compelled to direct their hearts to their Father in heaven [every day].

When we look askance or even aghast at our circumstances and ask: “What is this? Is this our portion?” the account of manna in the desert can inspire us to remain thankful to its Provider for what we still have, the miracle spiritual ingredient from which we can prepare the best-tasting soul food.

Shabbat shalom!

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Jewish Proverb