“It Is What It Is” Parashat Beshalach 5780

The Jewish People complain that they are hungry and thirsty. G-d addresses their problems: To quench their thirst, He gives them water from a rock and to feed their hunger, He gives them quail and manna. Manna was a miraculous sort of mystery food. Like modern-day tofu, it tasted like anything you wanted it to taste like. It was completely (and disturbingly) absorbed by the body with absolutely no waste products. It fell regularly early each morning and it melted in the sun. It fell six days a week with a double-portion on Friday. It lasted for exactly one day before going wormy and a person could take only much as he needed for his family.

The Jewish People had never seen anything like it and they had absolutely no idea what to call it [Shemot 16:15]: “When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘Man hu’ – for they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “That is the bread which G-d has given you to eat.” The phrase “Man hu” seemed to be a good a name as any and so they stuck with it [Shemot 16:31]: “The house of Israel named it manna”. It is what it is.

The commentators debate over the meaning of “Man hu”. Rashi, the medieval commentator par excellence, suggests that “Man hu” means “This is food”. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, also known as “Rashbam”, suggests that “Man hu” comes from Ancient Egyptian, the language of the Jewish slaves, and means “What is this?” The Rashbam draws our attention to a similar instance in which scripture uses a word from another language and that word later eventually enters our lexicon. The scripture in question is the Book of Esther. Haman decides to kill the Jewish People, down to the last man, woman, and child. His problem is finding time in his busy schedule to commit said genocide. In order to choose the most fitting timeslot, he uses a lottery [Esther 3:7]: “In the first month, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur – which means ‘the lot’ – was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, the month of Adar.” Eventually, the word “pur” was inducted into the Jewish lexicon [Esther 9:26]: “For that reason these days were named ‘Purim’, after the ‘pur’.” The Rashbam concludes: “‘Pur’, which is the Persian equivalent of the word ‘goral (lottery)’ in Hebrew, reflects what was familiar to people in that region and at that time. Esther and Mordechai did not have to use this Persian term at all… After all, the entire Book of Esther with the exception of a few words is written in Hebrew. However, if the Book of Esther had not first mentioned the word ‘pur’, we would not have understood why the festival was called ‘Purim’. The word ‘manna’ therefore is quite understandable in light of the circumstances.”. To summarize: When we use the word “manna” today, we are actually using an Ancient Egyptian word that means “What is this stuff, anyway?” It is what it is.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a contemporary of the Rashbam, who lived in Spain in the twelfth century, disagrees with the Rashbam’s[1] etymology. According to the Ibn Ezra, “Man hu” in Ancient Egyptian means “Who is it” and not “What is it”. He proposes a variant of Rashi’s translation by which “Man hu” means “This must be the food [that G-d was talking about]”.

Let’s return to the Rashbam. Out of all the words in the Torah, why was only the phrase “Man hu” written in Ancient Egyptian[2]? Similarly, in the Book of Esther why was the word “pur” written in Persian and not in Hebrew? Why do we celebrate the holiday of “Purim” and not “Goralot[3]”? Rather than answering these two questions, we will address a derivative of these two questions: Is there a connection between manna and Purim?

To address this question, we return to the Ibn Ezra. Where did the manna come from in the  middle of the Sinai Desert? Was manna some kind of miracle or could it be explained scientifically as a natural phenomenon? There are two primary scientific hypotheses regarding the source of manna: one hypothesis suggests that manna came from the cocoon of a certain beetle and another suggests that it came from the resin of the Tamarisk tree. Both substances are sweet, both melt in the hot sun, and both are indigenous to the Sinai Desert. Both seem like reasonable candidates for manna, but not to the Ibn Ezra. He absolutely rejects any kind of natural-origin hypothesis, commenting that the name of a person who proposes it “should rot”. The Ibn Ezra argues that while science can explain many of the manna’s physical and culinary properties, it cannot explain why it fell only at the outskirts of the camp (and nowhere else), why it fell only six days a week (Sunday through Friday, never on Shabbat), and why it became wormy if a person took too much of it home. Manna fell only where it was needed, only when it was needed, and only as much as was needed. This, argues the Ibn Ezra, cannot be explained with botany or entomology. Manna could only be a gift delivered by the outstretched Hand of G-d.

The story of Purim, like the miracle of manna, was seemingly not mysterious at all. Everything that led up to the foiling of Haman’s genocidal scheme could be explained via natural means: Esther was the beautiful niece of Mordechai, a minister in the King’s court. It was only natural that she be chosen as the new queen after Queen Vashti’s demise. Once Esther had become queen, it was naturally only a matter of time before she disposed of Haman and elevated her uncle in his place. R’ Thomas Furst, writing in “Torah Mysteries Illuminated”, debunks this hypothesis. R’ Furst identifies a chain of no less than thirteen coincidences in the Book of Esther, such that if only one of them did not transpire, Haman would have been successful and we would not be having this conversation. The mathematical odds of all of these coincidences occurring is infinitesimal. While one cannot zoom into the Book of Esther and see overt miracles[4], one cannot zoom out and not see the outstretched Hand of G-d.

I suggest that the Torah’s description of the episode of the manna serves as a primer in how to appreciate a miraculous phenomenon that is cloaked in nature. Initially, the Torah refers to manna exclusively as “bread”. For instance, when G-d commands Moses to store a small portion of manna in a jar as permanent evidence of the miracle, He tells Moses [Shemot 16:32]: “Let one omer of [the manna] be kept throughout the ages, in order that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness when I brought you out from the land of Egypt.” However, when Moses relays the very same command to Aaron, he uses slightly different wording [Shemot 16:33]: “Take a jar, put one omer of manna in it and place it before G-d, to be kept throughout the ages.” Why does G-d call it “bread” while Moses calls it “manna”? Further, it seems strange that G-d would refer to manna as bread, when bread is a man-made food: While G-d gives us the raw materials: wheat and water, it is man who takes the wheat, grinds it into flour, adds water and kneads it into dough, and then bakes it into bread. Manna, on the other hand, required no human involvement at all. It was just as tasty raw as it was cooked. Perhaps this is the message: Manna outwardly appeared to be no different than bread. All that was needed were the raw ingredients – in the case of bread, wheat and water, and in the case of manna, beetle cocoons and tamarisk resin – and the natural product was bread and manna. To prevent this kind of thinking, Moses reminds us that what we consider “bread” was actually “manna”, or “What is this?”. When confronted with manna, we must ask ourselves: What is this? What is its true essence[5]? Where did it really come from? Perhaps there is more than meets the eye. To paraphrase the Ibn Ezra, when confronted with manna, we must ask ourselves not only “What is this?” but also “Who made this?”.

Because sometimes a miracle is just a miracle.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, Shachar Yehuda ben Irit, and Tehila bat Adi.

[1] The Ibn Ezra mistakenly attributes the Rashbam’s explanation to Rashi.

[2] While the Torah contains an example of Ancient Aramaic [Bereishit 31:47], it contains no other examples of Ancient Egyptian.

[3]Goral” is Hebrew for “Pur”, see above.

[4] This is perhaps a reason why the Name of G-d does not appear in the Book of Esther.

[5] In Hassidic thought, “what” refers to the smallest piece, the most infinitesimal slice, a momentary flash of light. “What” is the place where G-d hides.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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