Beshalach: Manna from Heaven
This week, before we begin, a Torah Puzzler: What connects this week’s reading with Parashat Bereshit, at the very beginning of the Torah? The answer, or at least my answer, will be at the end of the column.
What I intend to talk about this week is the story of the manna. There are some very unusual aspects to it that I think are worth having a look at.
First of all the Hebrew word for manna. It is (wait for it) … man מָן (say AH when you say that). This, of course, is where the English word comes from. When the Israelites first see it, in Exod 16:15, they say to each other, מָ֣ן ה֔וּא man hu — which could mean, “It’s manna!” What it means when the Israelites first say it, however, is something like “What the hell is it?” — man being a word for what, not in Hebrew, to be sure, but in Aramaic.
“What is it?” is a pretty good name for a product that can have any flavor you like, as Jewish tradition says the manna could. There’s something interesting about the way the manna works. As you know, on the first day, Moses tells them: Make sure that you don’t have any of it left over by tomorrow morning.
Naturally, some of them don’t pay any attention to him. What happens when they wake up the next morning? The stuff is rotten and maggots are crawling around in it and Moses gets very upset. You would think there’s no need for him to get upset; after all, the people who ignored his instructions now are left with a container of maggots. Wouldn’t that be enough to make sure they’ve learned their lesson?
It’s interesting that Moses did not say, “Don’t leave any over for tomorrow morning because the Lord promised there will be more.” He just said, “Don’t leave any over for tomorrow.” So he’s not really taking them into his confidence.
The “first day” the manna fell was presumably a Sunday, because it’s clear that the “sixth day” of our story is indeed Friday. It’s clear because, as you remember, however much everyone gathered each day, they all ended up with exactly the same amount. On “the sixth day,” though, they discovered they had twice as much as they had had every day from Sunday through Thursday.
In Exod 16:23, Moses explains:
That is what YHWH had promised. [To me, Moses, in v. 5, even though I did not bother to tell this part to you, the Israelites.] There is a super-Sabbath, sacred to YHWH, tomorrow. What you want to bake, bake now; what you want to boil, boil now; keep the leftovers stored until morning.
That night, the manna didn’t spoil the way it had earlier in the week. Moses told them, “Today is that Sabbath I told you about yesterday; eat what you kept, because you’re not going to find any manna out in the field where you usually go to collect it.”
Naturally some people did go out to gather manna, and just as they’d been told, they didn’t find any. We don’t know exactly why they went out looking for manna anyway except that people 1 are creatures of habit, 2 don’t like to be told what to do, and 3 prefer to believe their own eyes.
Well, you are in a desert. Looking for manna is not like hunting for truffles. You wonder where they went, and how long it took, before they figured out that Moses was right. Long enough, at least, for YHWH to say indignantly to Moses, “How long are you going to refuse to keep my commandments and follow my instructions?”
This will not be the last time the Torah shows us the Israelites not following God’s instructions. What I’d like to point out, though, is that the leaders of the community have no idea what to do. They turn to Moses for instructions but Moses gives away as little as possible. To us it’s clear that this episode is a test; we heard Moses being told so in v. 4. The Israelites, however, aren’t told that they are being tested.
They’re being examined to see whether they get the idea of following commandments even though there’s not really any reason they should get it. Some of them, at least, don’t; they have all just been freed from slavery and probably have had their fill of obeying someone else’s commands. Nonetheless, Moses and God are both very upset.
Are we to imagine that in a real situation of this kind these leaders of 600,000 men of military age would be so at a loss and that Moses would not take them into his confidence? Perhaps we are, since in next week’s reading that is exactly the problem that Moses’ father-in-law Jethro shows up to solve.
Oh, yes — the Torah puzzler from the beginning of the column. I told you that at the beginning of the story the Israelites inadvertently gave manna its name by saying מן הוא man hu. But Exod 16:31 says something a little bit more interesting:
The House of Israel called its name manna.
I’m translating a bit more literally than I usually do, to match Gen 2:19, when YHWH, having created all kinds of animals and birds, brings them to the earthling he has created earlier:
And whatever the earthling would call the living creature would be its name.
In Genesis 1 it is God who gives out the names; in Genesis 2, without missing a beat, humanity takes over that responsibility. Exod 16:15, in this week’s reading, has a little fun at the Israelites’ expense, but in v. 31 they too take on the divine responsibility of giving names. They are becoming partners with God just as “Adam” did in Genesis 2 by naming the animals.
We have to assume that just as God was proactive in encouraging humanity to partner in creation by naming the animals, he also wanted the Israelites to — excuse the cliché — “take ownership” of the manna, by naming it. That would mean they were beginning to take ownership of their situation in the desert.
Next week, we will see the Israelites taking ownership of the Ten Commandments.