Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

In this week’s Parshah, B’Shalach, the Israelites embark upon a journey that will take them 40 years to complete. This is not, mind you, a journey through the urban centers of the world, with all of the comforts of civilization; this is a 40-year trek through arid desert. The Israelites soon run out of matzah to eat, and recognize that they will need three things to continue their journey: Water, bread, and variety.

G-d miraculously provides all three. Water comes from a rock that G-d commands Moses to smite with his staff. Flocks of low-flying quail suddenly descend upon the Israelite camp, providing the Israelites with meat. And then comes the bread.

A fine substance descends with the dew in the morning, creating a film on the ground. At Moses’s instruction, the Israelites went out to gather this fascinating stuff, and found that it was something that could be kneaded and baked, cooked in a pot, further ground in a mill or crushed in a mortar, and made it into cakes. Their initially reaction was one of wonder: What is this? They called it Manna, from the Hebrew word “Ma” – “what?” – indicating something too marvelous for words.

Every day, each man would go out, gather as much of the stuff as he could, and bring it back home. It had to be done early, for as the sun rose, the stuff would melt. Yet no matter how much a man would gather, he found that there was just enough for himself and his family for that day. There was none extra. Indeed, G-d took great offense when certain Israelites reduced their diet so that they could save some of the Manna for the following day. What they saved spoiled, and they learned that G-d deliberately intended to cultivate daily reliance upon Him and His care, and to develop a trust that He would provide for their sustenance. This lesson was underscored when, on Friday morning, each man brought home twice the amount that his family could consume in a day – and then found that the next morning, there was none to be found outside. Thus they learned that, not only does G-d provide sustenance throughout the week, but He provides for Shabbat as well, and in a manner that would allow the Israelites to keep Shabbat holy without suffering deprivation. They also learned that, not only does He provide on a communal level, He provides on an individual level; as every family ended up with exactly what it needed, without the Manna having to be rationed by community leaders. See Exodus, 16:14-35.

As it turns out, this miracle had an impact far beyond feeding faith. According to the Talmud (Yuma, 75a), the precision with which each household was supplied with its exact needs settled many marital disputes as well.

For example: A couple getting divorced might have a dispute as to who it was that was trying to get out of the marriage. The Manna resolved the dispute. If it was the husband who truly desired the divorce, his wife’s father would suddenly find an extra portion of Manna in his household’s share, and the husband would find his household’s share reduced by a portion. This would signal that it was the husband’s preference that his wife return to her father’s house. On the other hand, if the portion for the husband’s household remained the same, it was an indication that he wished his wife to remain, and that it was she who sought the divorce. Or perhaps the Manna reflected the wife’s desire. Who knows? Somehow, though, the Manna answered the question satisfactorily.

Another example: A divorced woman gets remarried within two months after the divorce. Shortly thereafter, she discovers she is pregnant, and seven months later, she has a baby girl. Is the baby girl the premature daughter of the new husband, or the full-term daughter of the ex-husband? Easy! Whichever of the two households suddenly finds itself with a new portion of Manna, that is the household to which the new baby girl belongs! (I know, I know…this is not intended to address custody issues.)

The Talmud derives this additional fact-finding feature of the Manna from the words used to describe it: “K’zera Gad Lavan.” Literally, K’zera means “like the seed of,” Gad means “coriander,” and Lavan means “white.” So: “like white coriander seed.” However, the word Gad is also the root of the Hebrew word “L’hagid” – “to tell.” Hence, from the Torah‘s precise choice of verbiage, the Talmud concludes that the Manna also had a telling feature, in which it told of, and whitened – or clarified – disputes pertaining to the Israelites’ seed. For by knowing a child’s proper lineage, the risk of siblings inadvertently marrying one another is eliminated.

There are many other mystical and legendary properties of the Manna, The most famous is the Manna’s taste. It’s default taste was that of a wafer fried in honey. Exodus, 16:31. However, elsewhere, it describes the taste of Manna as an oil cake. The Midrash explains that the truth of it is that the taste of the Manna would be transformed into whatever flavor a person might wish; and that the taste was as fully satisfying to the Israelites as breast-milk is to an infant. Another Midrash adds that any Manna that remained in the field melted, and became streams from which deer and gazelles drank. The nations of the world would then hunt these animals and taste in them the flavor of Manna, and know how great Israel’s praise was. Another miracle associated with the Manna was in its presentation, as it presented itself differently to different people depending upon their level of righteousness (i.e. as pre-prepared cakes for righteous people, and falling right at their doorstep, versus as unprocessed grain for less righteous people, and descending a greater distance from their tents).

However, there was also something decidedly feminine about the Manna – apart from its very fine and delicate appearance (“it had the appearance of crystal” – Numbers, 11:7). Although the Manna was in Moshe’s merit, whereas the well of water was in the merit of his sister, Miriam, according to some commentaries it was the Israelite women who formally named the Manna, as it says: “The house of Israel named it ‘Manna'” – and the “house of Israel” refers to the Jewish women. See Kli Yakar, Exodus, 16:14.

Perhaps this is because it is the women who had demonstrated a capacity for faith in G-d far more than their male counterparts. It was the women who were so certain that G-d would perform miracles for them that they took timbrels out of Egypt, as we discussed here, so that they were available when Miriam called the women to dance and song. They, far more than the men, must have appreciated the significance of the Manna, and leapt at the opportunity to name it.

And – again, according to the Talmud – there was a special something for the women that came down from heaven along with the Manna, a special bonus: cosmetics. The Talmud explains that later, when the Israelites complained of being tired of the Manna, the Torah states that “they crushed it in a mortar.” See Numbers, 11:8. This, the Talmud says, is a reference to a certain substance that descended with the Manna intended to be crushed in a mortar and used as feminine makeup, so that women might have the opportunity to beautify themselves in the dry and sandy desert.

Manna thus represents the power of faith, and the belief that G-d provides for us and nurtures us on a daily and individual basis; and not only does he provide the basics, but He even concerns Himself with our sense of vanity and our appreciation for cosmetic beauty. Too small, you think? Too petty and shallow? Not so. G-d cares about what is important to us. He likes when we enjoy the beauty and pleasure that he has created in His world, that life has to offer. The Manna was G-d’s way of saying: “Just include me in it.”

Shabbat shalom!