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Real Angel Food

  • Real Angel Food

    B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Bringing Forth the Extraordinary
Davar Acher By: 
Greg Kanter

Rabbi Levin teaches about Torah as our spiritual food sent from God like manna from heaven. It reminds me of the question raised by a prayer we recite often, HaMotzi - our prayer over bread, before meals. Without giving it much thought, we say, "… who brings forth bread from the earth," knowing full well that bread certainly does not sprout miraculously from the earth. There are a number of steps between planting wheat and having a delicious challah on a Shabbat table. So, why do we praise God for bringing forth the beautiful, braided bread when so much of our own human effort was required to transform a seed into what we finally eat? What's God got to do with it?

God is the Constant in the universe that makes it possible for us to transform something ordinary into something special; that is, wheat into challah. Similarly, God is the Force that makes it possible for us to transform our raw talents into developed qualities we can use to make the world a better place, transform our ability to love into a sacred, lifelong and meaningful commitment, and transform ourselves from ordinary human beings into mensches.

HaMotzi before a meal, like Birkat HaMazon after meals, is about so much more than thanks for the bread on the table. These prayers remind us of the sacred partnership we accept in the b'rit-our covenant with God as Jews; a covenant that requires us to embrace our ability to transform ourselves and our world for the better. May we hunger for opportunities to use our gifts! May we be fed with wisdom and strength to grow into something better! And may our faith inspire us to bring forth the extraordinary out of the ordinary!

Rabbi Greg Kanter is rabbi of Temple Sinai in Delray Beach, Florida.

Reference Materials: 

B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406

When do we read B'shalach

2021, January 30
17 Shevat, 5781
2022, January 15
13 Shevat, 5782
2023, February 4
13 Shevat, 5783
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