Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Flavor of Love: Towards a New Appreciation of the Manna

Although Pharaoh capitulated at the tenth plague and finally freed the Jews, Hashem wasn't done with him yet.
I shall strengthen Pharaoh's heart and he will pursue you. (Shemos 14:4)
Pharaoh pursues the Jews to the sea, the sea splits, and then... you know the story. The question is why? Why split the sea? If Hashem wanted to kill Pharaoh and destroy his army, He had ample opportunity to do it in Egypt during the Ten Plagues. There was no need for yet another miracle.

As the Egyptian army closed in on the Jews, Hashem told Moshe exactly why this was happening.

ואיכבדה בפרעה ובכל חילו ברכבו ובפרשיו - "I will be glorified through Pharaoh, and through his entire army, his chariots and his horsemen. (14:17; see also 14:18, 14:4)
Hashem split for the sea for His kavod, His honor and glory. Assuming that the Creator is not insecure or arrogant, how are we to understand the meaning of this? 

A clue to the answer appears later in the Parsha, in the story of the manna. When the Jews run out of Matzah, they complain.

The entire community of Bnei Yisroel complained to Moshe and Aaron in the desert. The Bnei Yisroel said to them, “If only Hashem had killed us in the land of Egypt when we sat by the meat pot, when we ate bread to the fill! You have taken us out to this desert to kill this entire congregation by starvation!” (Shemos 16:2-3)
Yes, it is a big chutzpah, but worse, it's heresy. The Jews accuse Moshe and Aaron of bringing them into the desert when they should know good and well that Hashem is the one who took them out of Egypt. Ignoring their pleas for food, Moshe and Aaron address the basic issue of faith first. 

Moshe and Aaron said to the entire Bnei Yisroel, “Tonight you will know that Hashem took you out of the land of Egypt, ובקר וראיתם את כבוד י-ה-ו-ה, and in the morning you will see the glory of Hashem. Your complaints against Hashem have been heard. What are we that you complain against us?” (ibid 16:6-7)

Moshe explains: "When Hashem gives you (quail) meat to eat in the evening and (manna) bread to the fill in the morning..." (ibid 16:8). In other words, since you seem to think we took you out of Egypt, the arrival of quail tonight will prove that Hashem orchestrated the Exodus, and in the morning, with the arrival of the manna, you will witness His glory.

Quail vs. Manna

According to the Ibn Ezra, both the quail and the manna served as "signs" that Hashem took them out of Egypt. The Ramban, however, points to the plain meaning of Moshe's words. The manna's function was different. It was an experience of Hashem's honor and glory, His kavod

What does this mean? What is Hashem's "kavod"?

The Ramban explains that the quail and the manna are not comparable. The quail were ordinary birds that were brought in by a strong wind; the manna was a unique creation ex nihilo. When Hashem performs extraordinary wonders, the full extent of His power and sovereignty - כבוד מלכותו - is made manifest. This, writes the Ramban, was what Moshe meant when he said, "In the morning you will see the kavod of Hashem."

The distinction between the quail and the manna is clear, but it raises a different question. Was the manna really necessary? If the arrival of the quail reminded the nation that Hashem took them out of Egypt, why the need for another miracle? If Hashem wanted to give the Jews bread, He could deliver sacks of flour the same way He delivered flocks of quail. Why perform the super-miracle of the manna?

Living on Light

The Ramban continues his comments on this verse with a description of the extraordinary nature of the manna. Extraordinary is an understatement. He begins by quoting Rabbi Akivah (Yoma 75b) who said that angels eat manna. The Ramban explains that to make manna, Hashem took the spiritual light that emanates from His Shechina and gave it physical form. Manna is the splendor of the Shechina corporealized!

It goes without saying that I don't have the foggiest clue what this means. To borrow an Artscrollism, Kabbalistic concepts are "beyond the scope of this elucidation" (see header). Nonetheless, I quote it for it brings us to the Ramban's next big idea.

If the manna was so lofty and spiritual, how did it sustain men of flesh and blood? The truth is, ordinary mortals cannot live on manna. However, the Jews of that generation were not ordinary. They witnessed the splitting of the sea, and it changed them. When the sea split, it was a revelation of God greater than the prophet Yechezkel ever saw. In the words of the Ramban, the souls of the Jews were "elevated" by the experience, and that is what made it possible for them to live on manna, the food of angels.

The Ramban thus links the sea and the manna: both are manifestations of the Shechina, and as such, the sea is what made the manna possible. These two miracles also share another distinction, a most puzzling common denominator: both the splitting of the sea and the manna stand out as the greatest miracles of our history - and we didn't need either of them. Both could be deleted from our history with no negative effect. But the question answers itself. It certainly is true that we did not need the manna or the sea - and that is exactly the point. These miracles functioned solely to reveal the kavod of Hashem.

If Pharaoh did not pursue the Jews and the sea never split, then the Exodus would simply be the salvation of an oppressed people. Had the manna never appeared, the quail would serve to keep the Jews alive in the desert. The formative miracles of our history would all be purely utilitarian, and this was not Hashem's intent.

The completely unnecessary revelation at the sea and the edible light called manna were Hashem's way of saying that something else is happening here: the Creator desires an intimate relationship with man. Hashem wants the Chosen People to recognize His kavod and to know who He is. He therefore orchestrated a ruse, a transparent excuse to reveal Himself for no reason other than love itself.

A Nes of Faithfulness; a Nes of Kindness

Now we understand Hashem's response to the Jew's embarrassing failure of faith. When the Jews forgot their history and blamed Moshe for taking them into the desert, Hashem refreshes the their memory with a replay of the two fundamental messages of the Exodus. First, He restores their faith by delivering quail and reminding them that He took them out of Egypt. This happens at night, matching the original emancipation - the Tenth Plague - which occurred at midnight. Hashem then reveals his kavod with the manna in the morning, just as the Jews experienced the splitting of the sea in the morning.

The timing of these events has great symbolic significance. The rising sun proclaims Hashem's kindness and the darkness of night calls for faith. This dichotomy, the contrast of day and night, was spelled out by the Psalmist. "To speak of your kindness in the morning and of your faithfulness in the evening" (Tehillim 92:3). Taking us out of Egypt was a divine act of faithfulness, a fulfilment of Hashem's promise to Avrahom. That is why it occurred at night, a time of faith. In contrast, the forefathers were never told about the revelation at the sea. It was a surprise gift; an expression of Hashem's love for His fiancee, the Chosen Nation. That is why it occurred in the morning, a time of kindness.

The same is true for the quail and the manna. Providing food was an act of faithfulness - Hashem had to take responsibility for the nation's survival - and so it came at night, like the freedom from slavery. But the manna, the light of the Shechina, was a divine kiss, if you will, and that is why it came with the rising sun, like the splitting of the sea. 


Hashem introduced the manna with these words:
"I will rain down bread for you from the heavens. The nation will go out and collect each day's ration daily, in order for Me to test them, will they follow my instructions or not." (16:4)
What is the test of the manna? The Ramban explains that it is not easy for people to live in a desert and have to rely on miracles for survival. To agree to such an existence requires an extraordinary degree of faith. By entering the desert after the Exodus the Jews demonstrated their loyalty and Hashem took note. "I remember the the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials; you followed after Me into the desert, a land where nothing grows" (Yermiyah 2:2). With the challenge of manna, Hashem continually tested the strength of the nation's loyalty.

The manna thus served as a barometer of faith and a geiger counter for sin. "Just as the prophets would speak to the Jews [about crimes they hide] in holes and cracks, so too the manna would tell the Jews what [lurks] in the holes and cracks" (Yoma 75a). Manna fell at the front door of the righteous, but the less righteous you were, the further you had to travel to find your portion of manna (ibid). It was a symbiotic relationship: manna produced faith and faith produced manna.

Stop Praying?

When the Jews were trapped between the enemy and the sea, they were obviously terrified. Some began to cry out in prayer (14:10). Moshe said to the people, "Do not be afraid! Stand and watch the salvation of Hashem... Hashem will do battle for you, and you will be silent!" (14:13). Hashem then said to Moshe, "Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Jews and move!" (14:14).

It is surprising enough to hear Moshe telling people to stop praying, stranger yet, Hashem tells Moshe to stop too! Why is everyone so down on prayer?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that prayer may be an appropriate response in a crisis, but it is not always sufficient. Sometimes extra merit is required for salvation and the call of the hour is not prayer, but an act of faith. The blind march of the people directly into the deadly waves was needed to induce the divine intervention that split the sea.

Once again we find that the manna and the sea share a basic feature. This time it is not the quality or the purpose of the miracle, but the driving force behind it: faith. Both at the sea and in the desert, acts of faith produced acts of God. The reason is easy to understand. When we rise above self-centered, predictable behavior and demonstrate our love with a sacrificial gesture, Hashem responds in kind, violating the natural order to reveal His love for us. Ironically, on both sides of the relationship, meaning is derived specifically from the needlessness of it all. As in human relationships, love between man and God finds expression in the things you don't have to do. (See Mesilas Yesharim, chap. 18)

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