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Parashat Beshallach 5772 – 02/01/02

Parashat Beshallach

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

Know that there is a profound idea concerning the manna, which our Sages hinted at and said in Tractate Yoma: Humans ate abirim bread.  “Bread that the ministering angels [from abirim = mighty ones] eat.”  These are the words of R. Akiva.  Said R. Yishmael to him: “You have erred, for do the ministering angels eat bread?!  Is it not already stated in the Torah: Bread I did not eat, and water I did not drink [i.e. if Moshe, who was a human being, didn’t eat or drink while he was in Heaven receiving the Torah, can we imagine that the angels eat?]  Rather abirim bread is bread that is wholly absorbed in the limbs [evarim].”

   The meaning of what Rabbi Akiva said is: The sustaining of the ministering angels is through the radiance of the Shechinah, and thus did the Sages expound and say: ‘The verse You give them all life and the legions of Heaven bow to You [Nechemiah 9:6]: You are the sustenance [m’chayeh] of them all.’  And about this sustaining radiance it is stated, ‘Sweet is the light’ [Eccl 11:7] because the angels realize in it a good (“sweet”) taste.  The manna was a derivative of this supernal light, which assumed material form by the will of its Creator, may He be exalted.  Thus it emerges that the people of the manna and the ministering angles were nourished from the same substance. (Ramban to 16:7)

When the Israelites complained that they had no bread, having run out of the provisions they took with them out of Egypt, it’s not clear exactly what they expected Moshe to do for them.  After all, they were in a desert, and you can’t grow wheat in a desert, especially if you are moving around and can’t tend the fields.  However Gd tells Moshe to tell them that He would rain down bread from heaven.  When they awoke in the morning they found a layer of dew on the ground, and when the dew evaporated, there was a white, scaly substance that remained.  This was the manna, so named because the Israelites asked man hu / What is that?!


The manna had several miraculous properties: no matter how much you gathered, you came home with 1 omer per person per day, except on Fridays when you got two omers, one for Friday and one for Shabbat.  The manna tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste like, unless that flavor were harmful (e.g. cabbage for a nursing mother).  Any manna left over till morning got wormy and stunk – except from Friday to Shabbat when it was fine (the commentators point out that generally food spoils before it gets wormy, but the manna got wormy first, so the transgressors who tried to stockpile manna would not smell it overnight and throw it out – rather they’d have to throw it out in broad daylight, to their embarrassment).  Finally, the manna was completely absorbed in the body; apparently the generation of the Exodus didn’t have to excrete waste for the 40 years of their wandering.  Our Rabbis have said that only a generation that ate manna was fit to receive the Torah.  Whether this means that only a generation that deserved manna would be on a high enough spiritual level to receive Torah, or alternatively, the manna had a purifying and spiritually elevating effect, I don’t know – perhaps both.


All that having been said, Torah doesn’t ever really say what manna actually was.  Ramban, interpreting the Midrash, fills in this gap.  Astoundingly, he posits that the manna is actually the same supernal Divine Radiance that sustains the ministering angels.  It is only made slightly more concrete so that human beings can pick it up, measure it out, cook it up and eat it.  This actually gives us a whole new definition of the idea of “food.”  Clearly, angels, which have no material bodies, do not need material input – their substance is purely spiritual, and their sustenance is also purely spiritual.  Human beings have both body and soul, and they need both physical and spiritual nourishment.  Generally those two are distinct; we can’t eat a Beethoven symphony and a tuna casserole warms the body, but not really the soul unless grandma made it specially for you.  In the case of the manna however, that boundary line got blurred; the same manna that nourished the body completely, so that there was no waste, also nourished the soul, so that those who ate it were able to sustain the experience of the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai (and then just barely).


Now let us take this idea a little bit further.  Modern physics has shown that all the particles of which material creation is made are nothing more than the modes of vibration of various abstract fields.  Further, the thrust of much of modern physics has been an attempt to describe these various, different fields as simply different aspects of one, underlying field.  Thus many believe that physics will be able to show objectively what virtually all spiritual traditions have been saying for millennia – the world we see, the world of material forms and phenomena, is in actuality nothing other than the activity of a purely non-material, infinite, unbounded level of pure being.  This pure being in fact permeates all of creation, not as something different from creation, but as the actual substance of everything in creation.  It is not “somewhere else” – it is the eternal Here (haMakom in Hebrew, one of the Names of Gd, literally “the Place”).


If this is the case, then every bite of food we eat is, just like the manna, simply congealed pure being, the congealed “supernal light” of the Shechinah.  What is the difference then between the two?  On one level, the objective level, we might say that the manna is somewhat less congealed than grandma’s tuna casserole, and definitely a lot less congealed than a Big Mac (even a kosher, Israeli one).  Thus, those of us who are less spiritually developed than the generation of the Exodus (all of us) can sustain ourselves on this grosser fare, but the downside is that this grosser fare keeps us on grosser levels of perception, thought and action.


The ultimate purpose of our life here on earth is to refine all aspects of our personality so that we can see through the surface values of Creation and enjoy the glory of the pure being at its basis.  What we eat has an effect on our perception and our thinking (besides our physical health of course), but perhaps more important is what our bodies do with the food we give it, and this depends on how refined a level our bodies can function on.  Our tradition gives us numerous techniques to refine our personality – prayer, mitzvot, Torah study, meditation.  Gd may not rain down manna from Heaven on us, but He has given us a way, practically speaking, to take our ordinary food and virtually convert it into manna inside ourselves.  Every time we say a b’rachah before we eat, we bring out the spiritual value of the food – we bring it closer to the level of manna.  Every mitzvah that we perform enlivens our awareness of the One Who commanded us to perform this mitzvah, and refines thereby the rest of our perception.  If our eyes are open manna is all around us; we just have to gather in each day’s portion and enjoy.