I love to sing. A large piece of what moves me in prayer is the music. There are times when I love to sit back and hear a beautiful piece of music; but most of the time in our synagogue, we try to inspire the congregation to sing with us. It isn't easy. Asking people to sing is often like pulling teeth.
People tend to feel more open to singing when they are absolutely comfortable. It's scary to sing in public. We sing when everything in life is good, when we are overcome with joy, and often, when we are swept up in the energy of everyone singing around us.
The Israelites experience this joy in our portion this week. Having experienced the extraordinary deliverance by God through the parted waters of the sea, knowing that the enemy that has enslaved them for centuries is finally vanquished, they erupt in song and dance. But the midrash tells us that when the angels too broke into song, God scolded them: "My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you would sing songs to me?" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b). All is not right in God's world; it is no time for song.
The melody of song is soon replaced by the cacophony of grumbling. The Israelites gather against Moses and Aaron as food becomes scarce. In their hunger, they forget their past, and lament they no longer have their fill of bread. In response to the grumbling, God provides manna, "bread . . . from the sky" (Exodus 16:4). Each shall gather according to his or her need and find relief from hunger.
From the ecstatic joy of their miraculous deliverance, the Israelites quickly return to the reality of life in the wilderness. They have needs and wants, thirst that needs to be slaked, hungers that need to be satisfied. But even more than food and water, what do we truly need to be satisfied?
The Chasidic teacher known as the S'fat Emet was one of the last great masters of Polish Chasidism. In his commentary on this week's portion, he cites a passage from Proverbs: "Go, eat My food and drink of the wine I have poured" (Proverbs 9:5). Looking to this week's portion, he understands that when God sent down the manna, it was, as the text says, "lechem min-hashamayim, (literally, 'food from heaven')."1
The midrash in Tanna D'Vei Eliyahu states that when Abraham served a meal to the three angels who visited him, they ate of Abraham's food even though as angels they had no need to eat. Thus they repaid his kindness by sending their food for Abraham's descendants to eat. But if angels have no need of food, then what was it they sent for the Israelites to eat?
Thus the S'fat Emet teaches us that it was Torah that God fed the Israelites to sustain them on their journey, for the angels find their hunger is for divine wisdom, and it is Torah that satisfies their need. Therefore, when God feeds the Israelites "food from heaven," it is not simply food for their bellies, but also food for their souls.
But there is a famous adage taught by Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah: "Where there is no bread [literally, flour], there will be no Torah."2 In order for us truly to be free, to be able to journey through the wilderness and make it to the Promised Land, then we need physical as well as spiritual sustenance. One is not enough.
If God had simply wanted the Israelites to be relieved from their physical hunger, then God could have easily provided the Israelites with mortal food. For example, in Numbers 11:32, when the Israelites complain of hunger, God provides quail for them to eat. Clearly, in giving manna for the Israelites to eat, God is trying to teach something more.
In order for the Israelites to truly be satisfied, they need food for their bodies and food for their souls. Thus the S'fat Emet teaches that it is customary for us to enjoy two loaves of challah on each Shabbat. One loaf is to represent our physical sustenance, as our blessing reminds us:hamotzi lechem min haaretz, "who brings forth bread from the earth." The second loaf represents our spiritual sustenance: lechem min-hashamayim, "food from heaven."
When we are privileged to have our fill of both physical and spiritual nourishment, food from the earth and Torah from heaven, then we will celebrate Shabbat and life with complete joy, the kind of joy where both we and the angels can sing together.
1. The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Arthur Green tr., ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), p. 103
2. Pirke Avot, 3:17, ed. and trans. by Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 47
Rabbi Dan Levin is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida.