The Past is Hard to Leave Behind

B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Mary Zamore

During the pandemic, many of us have turned to our comfort foods as we self-isolate. We bake bread and cookies, make mac and cheese, and cook vats of soup. We long for the past, a seemingly safer time, and seek it in a bite of food.

The week’s Torah portion, B’shalach, records the dramatic conclusion of the Exodus from Egypt. As the Israelites come to the Sea of Reeds, Moses follows God’s directions, lifts his rod, and the waters split, allowing the Israelites to escape on dry land. The waters then close upon the pursuing Egyptians. The Torah explains,

“And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Eternal had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Eternal; they had faith in the Eternal and in God’s servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31).

However, this faith is fragile, soon to be tested after the celebratory Song at the Sea, which provides the name for this Shabbat Shirah.

Three days later while traveling in the wilderness, the Israelites grumble to Moses that there is no potable water. The Eternal commands Moses to throw a piece of wood into the bitter water of Marah, making it drinkable (Ex. 15: 22-25). After passing through an oasis, the Israelites’ contentment quickly dissipates again as they journey into the wilderness. One month after leaving Egypt, the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron:

“If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (Ex. 16:3).

Answering their cry of hunger, God tells Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion…” (Ex. 16:4).

As the text continues, this bread, manna, “like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey,” (Ex. 16:31), arrives in the morning with its flesh counterpoint quail appearing at night. Providing needed sustenance, manna was also God’s pedagogic tool, teaching the Israelites to rely on God. The Exodus did not merely release our ancient ancestors from servitude; this liberty is to be a purposeful freedom, wedding the Israelites to God, God’s laws, and the Promised Land.

The Israelites ate manna for the 40 years they wandered in the desert (Ex. 16:35), making them completely dependent on God, their Sustainer. Yet, the lessons embodied in the manna extended beyond mere nutrition or recognizing God as the source of that food. There were also rules dictating when and how one collected the manna: e.g., just one portion per person, no hoarding, and collect a double portion before Shabbat. God explains, “…I will test them to see whether they will follow my instructions or not” (Ex. 15:25).

Yet, the punishment for breaking the rules was not withdrawal of nourishment. Instead, the portions of manna miraculously adjusted to each person’s needs, leftovers rotted, and those who tried to collect manna on Shabbat found none (Ex. 16:16-30). While the Israelites were slow to recognize God’s steadfast sustaining power and were stubborn regarding following the rules, God provided the manna no matter the Israelites’ reticence, while using behavioral techniques to reenforce obedience.

While not actually threatening their ability to survive, God made every meal a test of the Israelites’ trust. As it is taught in Maggid of Mezrich’s name, “The manna was a test of every individual to see whether or not they really feared God, because it is a greater test of reverence when one is not concerned over sustenance than if one is poor and believes in God” (Itturei Torah, Vol. III, 133). If the Israelites could master the rules with stomachs full and a stable food supply, their faith would be more secure.

Set in the second year of the Exodus, there is a parallel manna text in the book of Numbers, providing this vivid description:

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at!’” (Number 11:4-6)

While some of the details are incongruent with the Exodus text, in Numbers, the Israelites again voice longing for the land of their enslavement. At a moment of frustration, they crave the five foods they associate with Egypt.

The Talmud and Rabbinic texts explore the taste, texture, and cooking methods of manna, including this comment on the five Egyptian comfort foods:

“Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi [were disputing the meaning], one said: They found in the manna the taste of every kind of food, but not the taste of these five; the other said: Of all kinds of food they felt both taste and substance, but of these the taste only without the substance.” (BT, Yoma 75a)

The rabbis imagine that manna changed to the dietary whims of the diner, replicating every food desired. Yet, God limited the menu to remove or restrict the experience of the five foods that connected them to Egypt. Manna provided this additional educational opportunity to retrain the Israelites, to teach them faith in God, to follow God’s laws, and to face toward Israel.

Next week’s Torah portion includes the giving of the Ten Commandments, starting many chapters of law giving and receiving. Additionally, as we, the Israelites’ descendants, know too well, there will be millennia of ordeals ahead. Although it is natural when times are tough to look for comfort in what one already knows, even when it is a seat of servitude, the Israelites are inclined to look back on Egypt with false nostalgia. When discomforted, the Israelites must look to God, their present, and their future, and let go of Egypt.

That surrendering of the past is a continual process, starting with the first taste of manna.