BeShalach Shabbat Shira
5781 / 2021
The parasha describes the miraculous salvation of Bene Yisrael through the Sea of Reeds, the destruction of the Egyptian army, and Bene Yisrael’s initial experiences as a free, nomadic population challenged to understand themselves and form a relationship with God. Immediately upon escaping Pharaoh’s forces, Bene Yisrael express their gratitude spontaneously in song. Indeed, this shabbat is called, Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of the Song at the Sea. Miriam and the women also break into song and dance, exulting God’s power in thanksgiving, recognizing the miraculous defeat of their oppressors. Once on their own, however, Bene Yisrael are immediately challenged to find nourishment with food and water. They come upon a place called, ironically, Marah, “Bitterness.” There, the waters are too bitter to drink. The grammar of the narrative is meaningfully ambiguous. The reader is not quite certain if the phrase, “they were bitter” refers to the waters or to the people. God instructs Moshe in how to sweeten the waters. This narrative can be read as a powerful metaphor for their spiritual starvation. The people have no sense of themselves. They do not have any self-confidence, no sense of purpose and direction. They are not only physically, geographically lost, but spiritually lost as well. They immediately yearn to return to the one familiar set of circumstances they know, the enslavement of Egypt. They encounter another oasis, this time with date palms and sweet water. Their progress is slow. They backslide. They complain to Moshe. Dramatically, God then provides food from Heaven.
The Manna was unique. According to the Midrash Lekach Tov, it constantly had a unique taste and fragrance. (Midrash Lekach Tov 16:5:9) It was the perfect food; every part of it was digested. As the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, of 19th century Poland, wrote, building on earlier midrashic teachings:
The Manna was food that was so pure, it was like the food in the Garden of Eden. It was completely digested by the human body, without producing any waste at all. It was the perfect food. That is what the Torah means when God says, “I will make food rain down for you from the sky.” It was not tainted in any way like food from the earth. It was the perfect food for the body. (Malbim, Shemot 16:4)
The Manna was the perfect food for ex-slaves suffering from physical malnutrition. It rejuvenated the body, as if humanity could return to the Garden of Eden and be nourished by all the world had to offer. However, their malnutrition was not merely physical. Their bitterness ran deep.
This is not merely a physical famine of literal starvation. This is a spiritual, existential, psychological famine. This is a famine of blindness and of the tenuous structure of a fragile national personna. The Manna is God’s antidote to this famine. Look at the presenting moment in which God promised the Manna:
They said to them, “We wish Hashem would have killed us in the land of Egypt. At least there we sat by our meat stew and we ate our fill of food! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve all of us to death.” So God said to Moshe, “I will rain down food for you from the sky, and the people will go out and collect it every day. That way I will test them to see if they will follow My instructions or not. Because on the 6th day, erev Shabbat, when they collect the Manna, it will actually be double the amount they gathered on the other days.” (Shemot 16:2-5)
Bene Yisrael wanted to return to Egypt. They would have preferred to die in Egypt satiated, than confront their present challenges as independent people. The trauma of enslavement was so deeply embedded, that the people were not whole human beings. God’s response is Manna from heaven. Manna is described as lechem. According to Ibn Ezra, the word means, “food” in general, and even “meat” in certain contexts. (Ibn Ezra, 16:4) Later in this narrative, the Torah describes the food as resembling honey wafers and coriander seeds. (16:31) The interpretive traditions expand the powers of Manna since Bene Yisrael were starving physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. How could Manna assuage such pain, and help these emancipated, psychically emaciated slaves heal?
Rabbis in midrashic traditions reimagine the taste of the Manna. “God brought down for them the Manna which had many different flavors. People determined the palate of the Manna: each person tasted anything they particularly liked.” (Exodus Rabbah 25:3) Young men ate it as meat (lechem). The elderly tasted wafers made with honey. Infants tasted milk from their mothers’ breasts. The sick tasted fine flour mingled with honey. Heathens tasted bitterness, like coriander seeds. Even though it was all of one kind, the Manna changed into so many different foods to suit each individual” (Ex. Rabbah 5:9). The Manna nourished each person’s unique needs, enabling the diversity of humanity to flourish.
God’s directive to go out into the world and collect the Manna is also an intrinsic ingredient to the food’s power to nourish and heal. The Torah’s language is that the people went out and collected the Manna daily, devar yom b’yomi, literally, “a portion each and every day.” The word for, “portion” is davar, literally, “stuff,” something physical. However, Hasidic readings of this language interpret the word, davar as, “word” or “language.” Indeed, the words for “speech” and for “physical object that can be named” share the same three-letter root, d-b-r. This means that the Manna provided linguistic nourishment. The slaves emerged from their oppression language impaired. They were starved from an inability to articulate a self-understanding, to use language as a tool and vehicle of communication. They lacked words to express feelings, and more profoundly, to build relationships with each other. In the commentary of Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov, he wrote: The phrase, “they collected the portions every single day” can also be translated, “They collected their words every single day.” This means that the Manna inspired each person to speak truthfully, and kindly, and compassionately, never deceitfully. (Iggra d’Kalla on Shemot 16:4) Nourishing language promoted psychological health, enabling the people to speak truth and express compassion through kind speech. Rabbi Elimelech is suggesting that the ability to speak truth and express compassion humanizes. The ability and strength to use language this way is good for the health of humanity.
The collecting of the Manna suggests another form of nourishment for Rabbi Elimelech. In his commentary, Noam Elimelech, he wrote,
I will explain God’s message to Moshe. God is saying, “When people say they need some way to provide their basic needs like food and a home, I am always there to help them. That is why Bene Yisrael had to go out and collect the Manna. By going out and collecting the Manna, they can renew themselves every single day with a fresh start. It is important for people to renew themselves every day.”
Slavery dehumanizes not only through total physical abuse, by owners and members of the upper caste owning the slave’s body. It dehumanizes through the abject drudgery of ‘avodat farech, meaningless, pointless, mindless tasks. A fundamental theme of Jewish liturgy every morning is daily renewal. Our prayers recognize the onset of a new day as if God has recreated the world anew, filled with infinite opportunities for love, light, dignity and life. Human beings require constant renewal. We need to feel fresh, to constantly remake ourselves, to be born again, to borrow a phrase. It is as if the Noam Elimelch is saying just that: “God will enable you to experience constant renewal. Every breath brings new life as your neshama remains resilient and filled with vitality. Go out every day; nourish yourselves. The Manna brings you renewed life every day.”
Don Isaac Abrabanel, 15th century Portugal and Spain, saw the Manna as an elixir for character development. Just as the laws of kashrut require Jews to eat meat only from herbivores, the Manna was a radical, vegan antidote to the human penchant for cruelty:
The Manna was vegan (lit: ‘food that was like the grasses of the field), so that the people would not become cruel the way animals that eat other animals become. That is why kosher animals are animals that eat only plants and do not eat other animals. The Manna, therefore, was healthy for their character development. (Abrabanel, Shemot 16:4)
Nourish yourselves without shedding blood. Nourish yourselves gently. Eat food that your body will absorb completely. Health requires physical strength, psychological balance, existential purpose filled with meaning, and an ability to renew oneself throughout life. Health requires valuing the diversity of humankind, recognizing and celebrating all of the different ways in which each person is unique, filling the world with the texture of various cultures and tastes. Health is nourished by kindness and compassion and love that can be expressed in words. Words are the gifts we give to each other to build relationships and commitments. Health requires a kind and compassionate character. The Manna nourished all of these aspects of human health.
The Manna also nourished spiritual health by stimulating our sense of yearning. Human health, according to this explanation, atrophies with stasis. Humanity thrives on yearning, on striving towards, for yearning stimulates our imaginations and provides the content for our dreams. That is why, explained the Ramban, God provided Manna in the wilderness and required Bene Yisrael to collect it where nothing else would grow. God consciously wanted Bene Yisrael, and I would add, by extension, all of humanity, to yearn for nourishment directly from the sources of creation itself. For humanity to become human, we require a healthy portion of humility, that comes from our acceptance of our own limitations and dependencies. Once these sensibilities become a lived experience, there is a chance that we will dedicate ourselves to caring for each other, as well as for the natural world we inhabit. In the Ramban’s words, he wrote:
God tested Bene Yisrael. The test was to feed BY Manna from heaven in the wilderness where there could be no other source of food. As a result, BY would be hungry for Hashem, and they would understand that being close to hashem is what nourishes them The Manna was food that nourished their spiritual health. (paraphrased, Ramban, Shemot 16:4)
We live in a society that on the one hand is obsessed with health, yet literally plagued by physical and spiritual pathologies. The narrative of our ancestors speaks so powerfully to this moment. Birthed on the other side of the sea, Bene Yisrael emerged as a group of people filled with bitterness. Having thrived in the wake of the great famine during the generation of Yosef, Bene Yisrael found themselves traveling in the wilderness, starving and famished.
In this regard, parashat Beshalach is profoundly optimistic. The Torah not only describes the miraculous moment of salvation from oppressors. It also instructs us to engage the slow, challenging and difficult process to gain a sense of identity and purpose in life. Despite the considerable challenges, God provides us with everything we need to cultivate a positive, life-affirming attitude. Every day, Manna falls. Our task is to see it and go out and collect it. When people listen to each other, the world rains Manna. So too, with every kind word, with the celebrations of diversities, with the speaking of truth, with the giving of gifts of love and kindness. Our world can become a wilderness of potential, filled with Manna from heaven, or a barren landscape ravished and scarred by spiritual famine.
This Shabbat is called, Shabbat Shira. After crossing the Sea, our ancestors sang together. Singing together is good for our health. Many communities have different melodies to the Song at the Sea. Thousands of Jews all over the world sing this part of the parasha together this Shabbat. It is not an accident that the parasha that tells the story of nourishment from Heaven also includes the oldest, longest and most heartfelt song in the Torah. A world filled with so much anger, acrimony, falsehood, cruelty, greed, and violence, a world so filled with people trying to silence each other, would be deeply nourished by Manna. Instead of falsehood, truth. Instead of enslavement to our own egos, humility. Instead of greed, generosity. Instead of verbal abuse, listening. Instead of cruelty and hatred, compassion and love. The Manna nourished all these. Imagine such health, allowing humanity to sing together.