Commentary on the weekly Torah portion from Rabbi Jonathan’s recent book

וַיִּלֹּנוּ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל־מֹשֶׁה וְעַֽל־אַֽהֲרֹן בַּמִּדְבָּֽר

Va’yilonu kol adat B’nei Yisrael al Moshe v’al Aharon bamidbar.

In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron (Exodus 16:2).

 

Beshalakh is a momentous Torah portion. Pharaoh, his kingdom in ruins, has finally let the Children of Israel go. They arrive at the shores of the sea, יַם סוּף Yam Suf (sometimes translated as Red Sea and sometimes as Sea of Reeds). Pharaoh’s army pursues them. God commands Moses to hold his staff out over the waters, and a strong wind blows all night, parting the waters. The Children of Israel “walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22). Pharaoh’s chariots’ wheels bog down; water crashes over them. “Pharaoh’s army got drownded,” as the famous spiritual goes.

Moses and Miriam and the Children of Israel sing and rejoice and celebrate. They have been liberated from Pharaoh’s bondage. They are free! Now what?

Grumbling. Complaining. The Hebrew word is ַוַיִּלֹּנוּ va’yilonu:

The people grumbled against Moses: “What shall we drink” (Exodus 15:24)?

The whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron: “We wish YHVH had killed us in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread. You brought us out to this wilderness to starve!” (Exodus 16:3).

The people grumbled against Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt — to kill us and our children and livestock from thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).

Chapter after chapter of complaining. Finally, Moses cries to God (and this is an actual translation):

What am I supposed to do with these people? Before long they will be stoning me!” (Exodus 17:4).

This story always reminds me of my brothers and I fighting and complaining in the back of the station wagon on long car trips. I’m sure my parents felt similarly to Moses, wondering why they had ever thought that taking us on a trip was a good idea! Perhaps that is why in Hebrew the Israelites are called בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel. In Egypt, they possessed no autonomy. Now that they are free, they face the daunting tasks of autonomy: They must learn to delay gratification, take responsibility for themselves, build a just and fair society, and have faith in their future. These are the prerequisites for self-determination. If they do not master these attributes, then even if physically they are no longer enslaved, emotionally and spiritually they will never be ready to enter their land of promise, their Promised Land. This maturation process will take 40 years.

For each complaint in our Torah portion, God provides a solution: Brackish waters are made sweet; quail and manna cover the ground with food; Moses strikes a rock with his powerful staff, and water gushes from stone.

But these are not merely miraculous fixes. The Torah also describes them as tests for the Children of Israel. YHVH is training them so that they might be able to endure the insecurity of freedom and still rise each day with faith in the journey.

The deepest exposition of the nature of this training is Chapter 16 of Exodus. The entire chapter is devoted to the story of the manna, the fine and flaky substance that appears on the ground every morning to feed the entire community. Manna is no ordinary food. When the Children of Israel went out to gather it, whether they gathered much or little, each household discovered that it had exactly the quantity they needed to be satiated. If anyone tried to hoard the manna and save the excess, the next morning they would find that the manna had rotted and was now putrid. On the day before Shabbat, everyone was instructed to collect a double portion so that they would not have to labor on Shabbat; lo and behold, on Shabbat, the manna did not turn foul. What is this wondrous food?

That is precisely the question that the Children of Israel asked when they first saw the flakes covering the ground like frost: “מָן הוּא? Mahn hu?”—“What is it?” (Exodus 16:15). And thus, they named it Mahn; in English, manna. The name manna means “What is it?” There was no suitable name for this nourishment from God — only a daily, amazed exclamation at the sustenance being provided to them. As our morning prayers declare, “with goodness and compassion you renew every day Creation’s wondrous work.”

This was the “spiritual boot camp” of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. Every day, they had to practice faith that with each new day, they would receive that which they needed. Their impulse to hoard was stymied and useless. Day by day, they were challenged to overcome their fear of not having enough and instead trust in Life Unfolding.

I view the wilderness sojourn metaphorically. As I rise to enter a new day, my default attitude is self-interest — making sure I’m going to get my share today. But that attitude thrusts me forward, aggressively, into my experience. What if I instead started my day saying, “thank you”? What if I relaxed my grip on life and trusted enough to let it come to me? Even more prosaically, what if while I stand in a line of hungry people at a potluck, I could assume that I am not going to starve, and instead breathe deeply and wish everyone well? What if I had more faith, more wonder and more gratitude? Might that be the training I need to enter my Promised Land? Might I find that I am, in fact, already dwelling in my Promised Land at the moments when I stop grasping and instead start gasping in wonder at the countless ways I am already provided for? At those moments, I forget to grumble and complain. At those moments, I naturally only take what I need and happily share the rest. Day by day, I am learning the lesson of the manna.