Bitter Torah

The last hurrah–or perhaps I should say the last boo–of the Generation of the Exodus happens in this week’s Torah portion (Num. 21:5):

The people spoke out against God and Moses, “Why did you take us out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread and no water! We are getting disgusted with this flimsy bread!”

“This flimsy bread” is a reference to the manna. Rashi cites the tradition that the Israelites were alarmed by the manna’s four-decade defiance of a law of nature, namely: Everybody poops.

They said: This manna will swell up their bowels, for none of woman born absorbs food without eliminating it too! (Talmud, Yoma 75b)

But that’s the manna that the Israelites consumed. What happened to the manna that was not collected? The Torah tells us, “Then, when the sun became hot, it melted” (Exod. 16:21). The Midrash then picks up the story:

Zabdi ben Levi said. “Two thousand cubits of manna fell every day, and it would last through the fourth hour. When the sun shone upon the manna, it began to melt and formed rivulets upon rivulets flowing down… Once it formed rivulets, the nations of the world would come to drink of it, but it would become bitter and acrid in their mouths, as it says (Num. 11): ‘The manna was like a bitter seed.’ But for Israel it became like honey in their mouths, as it says (Exod. 16): ‘And its taste was of a wafer in honey.'”

That, at least, is what the Ancient Midrash Tanhuma says. But another Midrashic compendium, the Mekhilta, cites a radically different view.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Ps. 23:5). Said Issi ben Judah: “The manna that came down for Israel piled up to such a height that all kings of the east and west could see as the sun waxed hot, it melted. When the sun shone upon the manna, it began to melt and formed rivulets which flowed into the Great Sea. Harts, gazelles, roebuck, and all kinds of other animals would come and drink from the rivulets. The nations of the world would then hunt these animals, eat them, and tasting in them the taste of the manna that came down for Israel, say: ‘Blessed is the people who have it so.'” (Ps. 155:15)

This is a remarkable dispute. Both sources agree that the melting manna made its way to non-Jewish palates, but what did they taste? The bitter or the sweet?

This is not a technical question about a miraculous food from a three-millennia-old narrative. The manna, “bread from heaven,” has great symbolism, as it represents the Torah. At the conclusion of Exodus 16, the story of the manna, a jar of it is ordered to be placed “before the Testimony,” i.e. the Ark of Testimony, containing the shattered First Tablets, intact Second Tablets and eventually the first Torah scroll, written by Moses himself. Exodus 16 also has the first mention of “Sinai,” as well as the term “My Torah”: “I will make bread rain down to you from the sky. The people will go out and gather enough for each day. I will test them to see whether or not they will keep My Torah.” Rabbi Simon bar Yohai puts it bluntly in the Mekhilta: “The Torah was given only to manna eaters.”

So the question of how the manna tasted to non-Jews actually reflects dueling views of what Torah means for the outside world, nourishing or poisonous. The Mekhilta takes the former view: a little taste of Torah would surely be delicious for any human being, created in God’s image. The Tanhuma assumes the converse: Torah would taste like the ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah in the mouths of any other people.

One week ago, the vandals who set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee took the latter view to a vile and criminal extreme. The inscription they spray-painted, “And the false gods shall be utterly cut off,” comes from the Aleinu prayer, traditionally attributed to Joshua at the fall of Jericho.
In other words, this phrase expresses the views of the Israelites as they came into Canaan, a center of child sacrifice and other barbaric practices. To apply it to a house of faith which venerates Abraham, Moses and David is unacceptable. Isn’t it time that we embrace the potential celebrated by the Mekhilta–that the taste of Torah and the Jewish tradition can sweeten and enrich all mankind, especially those of the Abrahamic faiths who share so much with us?

As a Jewish and democratic state, Israel must swiftly bring to justice the perpetrators, nor can it countenance any violence of this sort, regardless of the faith tradition of the victims. Unfortunately, 43 of these attacks against churches and mosques alike have been carried out since 2009, with not one person prosecuted. That would be an affront in any case; but the lesson of the manna makes it a religious affront as well. Do we really want the nations of the world to taste only the bitterness of the manna?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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