Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 19 January 2019 / 13 Shevat 5779

Parshat Beshalach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Brooding over Bread

After our miraculous rescue from the pursuing Egyptian army, and after a joyous song of praise and thanksgiving, the fledgling Jewish nation was on its way to accepting the Torah. After three days of travel in the desert, their water supply was depleted and they complained of thirst. Moshe Rabbeinu cried out to G-d, and G-d instructed him how to miraculously sweeten the bitter waters at Marah to make them drinkable. There, in Marah, the nation was given an introduction to Torah, and significant foundational concepts of law and justice were taught. Moreover, the nation learned an experiential lesson: even the most bitter experiences become sweet through G-d’s Torah.

At the next stop, Elim, the nation discovers twelve springs of water. They travel from this place of plenty to the wilderness, and the entire nation begins complaining of hunger and fear of starvation. It is here where G-d sends the manna, the miracle food that would sustain the nation for forty years in the desert.

We can learn a great deal not only from the manner in which G-d chose to sustain his people in the desert, but also from the anxiety and panic that preceded it. The memory of the miracles of salvation during the plagues in Egypt and at the sea, along with the basic instructive experience at Marah — all these vanish before the specter of starvation that threatened their families.

Our Sages have taught: the provision of one’s daily bread is more difficult than the splitting of the Red Sea (Yalkut Shimoni, Yeshayahu 474). One way to understand this is

that the threat of hunger — real or imagined — undermines all principles and unravels noble resolves.

When man cannot disengage himself, not from the responsibility of providing for his family, but from the overwhelming anxiety that accompanies this responsibility, he is unable to fully realize G-d’s Torah.

Freedom from this anxiety comes only with the deep awareness that success in the effort to sustain oneself is not in man’s hands alone. Surely a person must do his part to achieve this objective, but the result is in G-d’s Hand.

As long as man does not possess this awareness, as long as he believes that his livelihood is a product of his own limited powers, there will be no end to his anxiety. He may come to believe that he must not only secure his financial position for tomorrow, but for his whole future, and for the future of his children, his grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren. This belief goads him into an endless and ruthless pursuit of greater wealth, leaving him no time for the pursuit of other aims and goals.

Hence, the message of the manna necessarily preceded the giving of the Torah. The people would have to experience this anxiety in the wilderness, where the future seemed hopeless, and learn to trust in the ultimate provision of the Almighty. Only then would they be free to pursue the more lofty goals that the Torah entrusted to them.

· Source: Commentary, Shemot 16:2

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