CHOL HAMOED SUKOT
SERMON: BEIT WARSZAWA, SHABBAT CHOL HAMO’ED SUKKOT, 18th. October 2019.
For the Shabbat in Sukkot the rabbis chose as a Torah reading Devarim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 8, which stresses the way in which the Israelites had to spend (and suffer) a lengthy period, forty years, in the wilderness. This seems appropriate to our own congregation which is also to some extent ”in the wilderness”, in rented accommodation, dependent on others, needing to unpack and repack each time we wish to hold a service, just as the Levites constantly had to set up and then dismantle the Tabernacle which they carried through the desert. One could argue that the whole of Europe is Jewishly a wilderness, a Midbar, not just Poland and not just Warsaw; here and there, there are encampments of Jews, many of whom wandered into Europe from North Africa or from the Former Soviet Union or from America or even, ironically, from Israel. At the moment there is in Germany a strange form of population exchange whereby each year some Jews leave Germany and move to Israel because only there do they feel free from the constant stress of Antisemitism, feel free to be Jews, to wear a kippah; whereas every year some Israelis move to Germany because only there do they feel free from the constant stress of potential attack by the neighbouring countries, feel free from potential danger and violence, free to travel. ”The other man’s grass is always greener” as the old saying has it. I say here, deliberately, that I do not wish to criticise either group; Both are right, both are justified in their decisions.
In the case of the week of Sukkot we recall not just the autumn harvest but also that the Israelites were once enslaved and were given the opportunity to get out of Egypt and move to another country where they would be free – or at least, free to serve God rather than Pharaoh. Clearly some Israelites were not happy about having to go and later grumbled with nostalgia for the food they had previously enjoyed, the fish and the garlic and the onions, and equally clearly some non-Israelites were happy to tag along and use the opportunity, the ”Eruv Rav”. History is always more complicated than populists and nationalists like to present it.
However, the problem is that although the Israelites are prepared to leave Egypt they are not yet prepared to go to Canaan, especially if this is a country already populated and defended – and they feel this despite Joshua and Caleb urging them that with God’s assistance anything is possible. The consequence is that God has to wait until an entire generation (with but a few exceptions) has died out. Now in Deuteronomy Moses is teaching the People their history, the history of the previous generation.
One item he focusses on is Manna (in Hebrew, ‘Man’). God, says Moses, wanted the Israelites to get away from their previous slave diet, to feel hunger a bit and then to receive Manna. This was something neither they nor their more distant ancestors (some of whom had also worked and lived in the desert) had known. (8:3: ”Veya’achilcha et-haMan, asher lo-yadata, v’lo yad’un avoteicha.”) Why did God do this? To teach them that food in itself was not enough; to live as well-fed slaves was no true alternative to the risks of freedom. ”One does not live by bread alone.” Instead everything that God commands is what nourishes us.
Although there are various quasi-scientific theories about crusty deposits or berries in the desert, nobody really knows what Manna is (or was).
One bowl of Manna was preserved in a jar (Exodus 31:33) and later kept in the Tabernacle as a souvenir of this period – presumably it remained intact and did not rot, though it has since been lost. In Exodus Chapter 16 the runaway slaves have left Elim, where there was water, and enter the Midbar Tzin and here – on the fifteenth day of the second month after the Exodus – they grumble: ”We wish we had died by God’s hand in Egypt, where at least we had plenty of stew, where we ate as much bread as we wanted. But no, you have brought us here to let us die of hunger!” God’s response is to tell Moses ”I will make bread fall like dew from heaven” – ”Mamtir lachem Lechem min-haShamayim”; Interestingly this is coupled with the concept of a weekly schedule – the Manna will fall on six days but then not on the seventh, albeit on the sixth a double portion will arrive, to cover the needs of the seventh day. Although the word ‘Shabbat’ is not used until verse 23, this is, remarkably, the very first mention of the concept of a Shabbat since the Creation story of Genesis 2:1-3. Shabbat as a Mitzvah will be commanded only later, in Chapter 20!
That evening – but only as a one-off, unique event – migrating quails land and provide meat for the Israelites, but the next morning – well, let me read you a translation:
”In the morning there was a layer of dew round about the camp. And when the layer of dew was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it the said, one to another, ”What is it?” – for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, ”It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. This is what God has commanded – Each person shall gather up what they need to eat, an Omer per head, according to the number of persons in your household you should take it…”. and the Israelites did so, some took more, some took less, but when they then measured it with an Omer, each had just enough. And Moses said, ”Let nobody leave any of it till tomorrow”, but they did not listen and some of them left it till the next day – but it bred worms or maggots and rotted…. And so they gathered it morning by morning, each man according to what he needed to eat, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. But on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two Omers per person, and so the rulers came to Moses in surprise; and he said to them, ”This is what God is telling you; Tomorrow is a day of holy rest, a ‘Shabbat-Kodesh L’Adonai’, so bake or boil whatever you need to for now, and leave the rest for tomorrow.” So they did so and this time it did not rot, nor did it develop worms. And Moses told them, ”Now you may eat it, for today is a Sabbath and there will not be any in the fields.” Nevertheless some Israelites did go out to look for Manna, but they did not find any….” (Shemot – Exodus 16:13-27.)
This is quite a remarkable passage for several reasons, both in how it describes what happens and how Moses gives out the information sparingly and how the people do not listen to him even so. But God is using the Manna as a form of teaching and a form of control. Maybe God, too, still wants to take Shabbat off and not be bothered with arranging the supply on this day? They have to learn to rely on a new supply each day, and they have to learn the exception to this rule, the one day in the seven-day cycle when a double portion comes and the one day in the cycle when nothing comes. Manna is also a matter of faith, and acceptance of a new calendar unknown to slaves who, in Egypt, never enjoyed such privileges as free days or holidays.
Setting aside for now the question of how the former slaves in Egypt might know what hoar frost looked like… In verse 31 ”The Israelites called it ”Man” and it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste was like honey wafers.” ”K’Zera gad Lavan, veTa’amo k’Tzapichat biDvash.” It seems to be the perfect equivalent of a high-protein and roughage vitamin-laden muesli bar! A complete balanced diet in an Omer-full of white globules, that, like tofu, one can cook.
Of course it does not take long for the Israelites to get bored with this endless Man and, looking ahead, in Numbers 11:4-6 either they or the ”Mixed Multitude”, the Eruv Rav, complain ”We want meat! We remember the fish which we could eat in Egypt and the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic – but now our soul is dried away, we only have this boring Manna!!” Interestingly no grains are mentioned, though as we know Egypt was where the wheat grew when Jacob’s sons needed to buy some. The´text then helpfully adds information for the reader (not for the Israelites, they already knew this!) – :”Now Manna was like coriander seed, and it appeared like bdellium. (”VehaMan k’zera gad hu, ve’eyneo k’eyn HaBdolach”). Ever heard of Bdellium? Apparently it is some form of gum resin from a plant that grows in Africa and Afghanistran but not in Sinai; or it is also a brownish precious stone. But whoever wrote this assumed that the information would be helpful to the reader!
The people went about and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars with a pestle, and boiled it in pots, and made cakes of it; and its taste was like cakes baked in oil; and when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the Manna fell upon it.” (Num. 31:7-9.) This is almost like the first Jewish cookery book. Manna was clearly used as a raw material, like Tofu. (Hence the question: ”Mah? Tofu Ochelecha, Ya’akov?”)
At this point it is only the second month of the second year since the Exodus (see Num. 10:11) and so we see that after just one year they are already bored with it and the nostalgia grows for fish, onions, garlic and so forth. However, when we return to the Exodus passage – when they are just one month out of Egypt!! – absolutely remarkably and often overlooked, the text continues: The children of Israel ate of the Manna for forty years, until they came to an inhabited land. They ate Manna until they came to the borders of the land of Canaan.” (Ex. 16:35). We are then told, almost as an aside, that an Omer is one-tenth of an Ephah. But the point is that this is still a long time before the story of the spies and their negative report leads to God deciding that they will have to wait forty years! The verse is an anachronism in this location. It is likewise strange that elsewhere in the Torah they are given so many instructions for making offerings of different forms of matzot and bread and oil cakes and fruits and animals, whereas they themselves seem at this period to be still stuck on a diet of Manna!
One wonders whether in ‘Shelach lecha’, Numbers Chapter 13, Moses should simply have told the Israelites, ”You have a choice; Either we move forward to Canaan, where there is a land flowing with milk and honey, plus figs, grapes and olives, or you will have to put up with another thirty-nine years of Manna!” THAT might have changed their minds…..
When do they stop getting Manna? The answer is to be found in the Book of Joshua Chapter 5, outside the Torah itself. The Israelites have now at last crossed the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month (Joshua 4:19) and entered the Promised Land; they celebrate the Passover on the fourteenth day of that month, eating ”Matzot veKalui”, unleavened cakes and parched corn, which were the produce of the Land; ”And the Manna ceased on the next day, after they had eaten of the produce of the Land, the children of Israel had no more Manna but ate of the produce of the Land of Canaan that year.” Maybe the Manna did not carry a hechsher for Pesach in the Land? No, this is too flippant….. But the point is the Israelites had not sown or harvested the corn of this year, yet they get to consume it. They are no longer in the wilderness, no longer dependent on Manna.
Now, I have talked at length about just one part of Moses’ speech in Numbers Chapter 8 but I think the concept is an important one. The people of Israel get used to ”bread falling from heaven”. They have to go and gather it but that is all – for the rest, it is just there, predictably, reliably. Their invisible ‘sponsor’ provides them with what they need. And for so long as they are in the wilderness, this is fair, because they are nomadic, they have little option to plant and grow and harvest and thresh and winnow and bake other forms of food. They take it for granted. They even grumble. The only donations they make are for the Tabernacle – the Building Fund of the time.
BUT – the time comes when God says: ”Now you are in your new home, it is time you began to work for yourselves. The bread from heaven will stop and from now on you will have to say the blessing for bread which ”hamotzi min-haAretz” – that comes from the soil. The time to rely upon outside help has to cease.”
I suspect that a lot of Jewish life in Europe has been built up in this post-war wilderness using external help, financial and personal, books, staff, organisational aid, and more. The Jews in several countries in Europe have to provide very little from their own resources because synagogues, schools, rabbis, cantors, mikva’ot, matza, youth leaders all seem to ”fall from heaven”, free of charge. Moses in his speeches in Deuteronomy is warning the Israelites that soon they will leave the Midbar and move to the next stage; a part of this will involve learning to become more self-sufficient. Of course they are still dependent on God for the land, the sun and the rain…..but the bread they get will be the bread they earn for themselves.
Having been a rabbi in this European wilderness for almost as long as Moses was in his, and having seen how things are done in so many communities in so many countries, I begin to wonder if there are parallels that can be drawn?