It’s a pun! Or at best a funny error. The name of that mystery food that comes out of the sky when the Israelites complain about the meal plan? Take a look:
It came to pass in the evening that the quails went up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.
The layer of dew went up, and behold, on the surface of the desert, a fine, flaky substance as fine as frost on the ground.
When the children of Israel saw, they said to one another, “What is it?” because they did not know what it was, and Moses said to them, It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. [Exodus 16: 13-15]
The biblical Hebrew for “What is it?” is “Man hu?” It sticks, becomes the name for the nameless stuff of no specific taste that drops from the clouds. Another variation on “Ma zeh?” the familiar “Whatsis?” from small children trying to get you to look at chewed-up food in their mouths. “Ma zeh, Ima?” The Israelites survive the rigors of forty years wandering in the wilderness in part because of a steady supply of whatsis! Now there’s a fine kettle of fish. No that was the stewpots of Egypt. This is a horse of different color. Yes, the Oz movie we watched as kids where every time you looked at the horse it changed colors. If you had a color TV. Dorothy where are your ruby slippers? Whatsis all about?
Consensual reality. A very popular New Agey and political theoretical idea. Get everybody to think it’s so and it’s so. Nu? I’ll even throw in a bridge in Brooklyn. But that’s kind of what was supposed to have happened out there in the desert all those millenia ago. God tells Moses, Moses tells Aaron, and Aaron makes the general services announcement. Everybody’s in. Except the Israelites are a hard sell. Ten plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds and drowning of the entire Egyptian army. Well, maybe, but what’s for dinner? So of course we latter-day Israelites have to buy all that as well. If it all DID happen that way, why wouldn’t you be all-in already? It’s in the water, it’s in the food. Whatsis. C’mon people, you just gotta believe. It must’ve been like banging his head against a wall of water, poor overwhelmed Moshe. But he perseveres.
So we turn to Sefer Yetzirah. Yup. The earliest surviving book of Jewish mysticism. According to Saadia Gaon, the original handbook of how something comes from nothing–yesh m’ayin. Author unknown. A meditation upon the letters of the aleph-bet and the sephirot, those mystical energies that are imputed to emanate directly from the Godhead. And, by the by, a handbook for making a golem, while you’re at it. And those ten sephirot, well, they are the sephirot of emptiness, “b’li ma.” Literally “without what.” That’s what the book says. There’s that pesky word “ma” again. But this is a core concept in Jewish mysticism that goes all the way back to Creation, literally. That “without whatsis” is precisely the amorphous evanescent stuff that everything is made from. In the book of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) we call it hevel, vapor. Everything is vapor. Similar to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā, the emptiness that is ultimate reality. Anybody for a little aether? It’s come back as a concept in modern physics. The emptiness of space isn’t empty. So what’s all this got to do with snacks from heaven? Everything.
A key metaphysical thread that weaves its way from Bereishit through Devarim, all five books of Torah, is that reality is fungible. Really fungible. And it’s fungible precisely because of the fundamental property of whatsis. Anything can become anything else, horses of different colors, Kansas to Oz and back, whatever. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” come to life. You just have to pay attention. Only Moshe sees the burning bush. Talk about fungible reality. There’s some weird juju out there that you’ve probably overlooked. Keep looking. We’re being asked to believe that. Even more, we’re being told that if you don’t believe it, if you’re a diehard dunderhead materialist, along comes Amalek. Sorry, but we had to squeeze in Amalek, those no-goodniks who attack the young, the elderly and the decrepit, the most vulnerable of us. The fact that there’s no historical evidence of Amalek is beside the point. Just kidding. It is the point.
Amalek, the central character of the final vignette in Beshalach, is to the Israelites what Grendel is to the Danes of the epic saga “Beowulf.” The special quality of the hero Beowulf is that he never reacts in anger, unlike the brawling Danes, who summon him to save them from the monster Grendel. Grendel the monster is the embodiment of the Danes’ moral flaw, unbridled anger. Amalek embodies the Israelites’ recurrent spiritual failing, incontinent fear. That fear attacks them where they are most vulnerable, where their faith is new or damaged or deteriorating already. They defeat Amalek only as Moshe’s arms are held toward heaven by Aaron and Hur. Aaron, the progenitor of the future priesthood, and Hur, the forbear of the chief artisan of the tabernacle. The architects of faith, emunah. Emunah, derived from the root uman, craftsman. Faith as a form of craftsmanship. Craftsmanship applied to its basic spiritual material, whatsis.
The special quality of Moshe is that he co-creates reality with The Unknowable One. And he’s not afraid to argue about it. But in the end, or actually at the beginning and end of Beshalach, Moshe’s arm is God’s arm, the arm that parts the sea and the arm that insures victory over Amalek. Pretty cool. If we look ahead it’s the same arm/hand, same word ‘yad’ in Hebrew, that inscribes the Two Tablets that come down from Sinai, replacing the two done at God’s own fingertips, the earlier version summarily tossed and shattered. And if we wind the tape back just a moment to the end of the previous parsha, Bo, we read the precise instructions to wrap tefillin on our human arms in direct imitation of the mighty arm of God embodied by Moshe in the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. A call to arms! That is, a call to co-create reality out of the whatsis that lies just beyond our vision. Co-create and only co-create. A tall order? Or just the stuff of life itself. We have only to look.