Bread and water. That’s all that the Israelites really need. After all, they have been freed from Pharaoh’s tyranny, free to follow a higher purpose, a divine calling. They have witnessed one miracle after another. Ten plagues have ravaged the Egyptian countryside and afflicted the Israelites’ oppressors. The former slaves crossed a sea that turned to mud and then closed up again, trapping Pharaoh and his pursuing army. Certainly these wondrous events have assured the Israelites of divine protection. Their faith should be unshakeable, as the Torah tells us “And when Israel saw how God’s great power over the Egyptians, the people felt awe and they believed in God and in Moses, God’s servant. (Exodus 14:31)
In this week’s portion, Beshallach, we read of the climactic moment when the Children of Israel cross the Red Sea to freedom. The narrative is so dramatic it is worth taking the time to read in the original (Ex. 13:17 -14:31), and even adding this section to your Passover seder.
This week is also known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. At the heart of the portion, Miriam and Moses lead the people in grateful song (Ex. 15:1-18, 20-21). And then, just as we must return to our routines after a vacation or holiday, the Israelites leave behind the exultation and start to focus on daily life.
What is their first request? Bread and water. Only a few verses after all the singing and dancing, the people are already grumbling, “What shall we drink?” (Ex.15:24) God instructs Moses how to sweeten the water so they can drink.
Just a few verses later, the people are complaining again, “If only we had died by God’s own hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat at pots of meat, 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) Immediately, God provides manna.
The commentators ask what has happened to the people’s faith? How can they be so forgetful of divine providence or so brazen as to complain against God? This critique arises from Moses’ own words, saying “Your grumbling is not against us, for it is against God!” (Ex.16:8) It appears that the people have lost faith, demanding further proof that God is with them or questioning God’s power. If God could part the Red Sea, why shouldn’t they expect God to provide bread and water? If the Israelites had faith, they would they have waited patiently, trusting God’s blessing to appear.
Commenting on a second occasion in this portion when the people demand water (Ex 17:2), the 15th century Spanish commentator, Abravanel, counters these arguments saying, “If they lacked drinking water, then they were justified in complaining….It was surely an absolutely legitimate and essential request.”
In each of these instances, God does not hesitate to respond to the people’s needs. When they ask for water, God instructs Moses to give them water. When they beg for food, God rains down manna, and provides quail as well.
While Moses takes affront at their lack of faith, God is concerned for their hunger. As the great 19th century Mussar teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter, famously taught, “We worry too much about other’s souls and our own bellies. We should be worrying more about our own souls and other’s bellies.” Likewise, when someone is begging for food or water, it is not a time to question their faith. It’s a time to feed them.
As annoyed as we might get when someone whines or complains, the godly response is to hear the pain behind their words. It’s not easy to do. Even our greatest teacher, Moses, was distracted by his own emotional response. If we truly listen, we can hear the grumble of the stomach beneath the grumbling words. Rather than react to the complaint, we can truly respond to the need.
Perhaps there is more to learn from God’s response to the hunger expressed by the Children of Israel. God tells Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: in the evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I am your God.” (Ex. 16:12)
Like a loving parent, God tells the people that they have been heard and assures them that they will not starve. In the final phrase, “and you shall know that I am your God,” God is also gently teaching them, and us, about faith. When people’s basic needs are fulfilled, they will then have the capacity to seek a higher purpose. Knowing that the manna will fall every morning eases the people’s anxiety. Well-fed, they begin to notice more than their aching bellies. The manna that fills their physical desire also fills their spiritual hunger: to know God’s presence.
This faith is tested every seventh day, when the Israelites are instructed to collect an extra portion for Shabbat. On all other days, if they collect more than their share, the extra manna rots overnight. On this night alone, the extra manna will retain its freshness until the next day, when nothing will fall from the sky. On Shabbat, the six days of work and physical sustenance yield to one day of faith and spiritual renewal. Shabbat is a reminder of a higher purpose to life.
In the face of hunger and thirst, the Children of Israel quickly forget the fantastic events of the parting of the Red Sea. Who can blame them? Faith may arise in miraculous times, but it must be sustained in the everyday. We rarely experience an earth-shattering miracle; we know God in a loaf of bread. However, one day a week we are given the opportunity to stop “collecting” and give thanks for what we already have. Shabbat is the spiritual gift that awakens and renews everyday faith. Shabbat shalom!
published in The Jewish Advocate, January 10, 2014