A Personal Relationship to Torah
In his parashah commentary several weeks ago on the beginning of the book of Exodus, our Chancellor–elect Arnold Eisen shared what I consider one of my favorite texts. Taken from Pesikta d’Rav Kehana, the text uses as its catalyst the manna we encounter in this week’s parashah. The midrash teaches that each person tasted the manna differently. Even more so, everyone received the sustenance they needed from the divine bread. Infants and the elderly, for example, each tasted what they had the capacity to consume. In the midrash, Rabbi Levi makes an empowering juxtaposition between this week’s encounter with the manna and the revelation on Sinai we read about next Shabbat. When God spoke, each Israelite commented: “Revelation came to me. ‘I am the Lord your (plural) God’ was not said, rather, ‘I am the Lord your (singular) God’ was said “(12:25).
Focusing on the use of the second–person singular pronoun employed by the first commandment, Rabbi Levi learns that the revelation on Sinai was directed individually to each person present. The verse could have easily made use of the plural eloheichem, and the first commandment would have been directed at the entirety of the people, but instead the verse uses elohekha, establishing a personalized relationship. While both words translate as “your God,” the simple switch of pronoun creates an entirely different relationship between each Israelite and God.
The manna has served as fodder for countless midrashim, but keeping on the current theme, I would like to share one from the Sefat Emet — Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Lev from Ger. First, let’s take a look at the verse from the parashah:” And the Lord said to 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 — that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not’ ” (16:4).
Through the verse, the children of Israel are instructed to satisfy their needs with the bread God will provide from the sky. They are instructed specifically to gather solely for that day’s need — and no more — which all foreshadows the upcoming instructions on gathering two portions on Friday in preparation for Shabbat. The Gerer Rebbe focuses on the latter half of the verse introducing the manna, specifically, the instruction to gather the manna once a day. Reading the Hebrew torati not as “my instruction,” but as literally “my Torah” he writes: “Each day that day’s portion — I will test them if they will follow [the same] with my Torah: This comes to teach us that the Torah is always self–renewing. … This is ‘each day that day’s portion’ — the renewal that God creates every day in nature is preparation for Torah.”
The manner in which nature renews itself on a daily basis is training us — and can be seen as the blueprint for the renewal of Torah. Just as each day the manna renewed itself, so, too, must we renew our understanding of Torah. The natural imagery is moving. As the sun rises and sets, and the seasons change, we must discover and rediscover our relationship with our sacred text.
We cannot imagine the impact that this simple directive had on the newly freed slaves. Only steps from Egypt, their lives had changed in so many ways, and their deprogramming had begun. To transform from slaves under the thumb of Pharaoh to a free people uncovered so many habits they had to relearn — beginning with their conception of daily survival. To be told that whatever food they collected would be enough to satisfy their needs — to be told that there is a day of the week where they would not have to work — are revelations in and of themselves. These simple directives are their first forays into freedom — and they are meant to prepare them for their relationship with Torah.
Have we internalized this lesson? Have we as a people truly embraced our sacred texts and renewed them for our lives? The manna is sustenance not only for those wandering in the desert, but for us today.
There is a Hassidic story of a student who approaches his rebbe and questions the annual cycle of the Torah reading. He asks, “Rebbe — I don’t understand, every year we return to synagogue and read the same words over and over. It never changes.” The rebbe gives what I imagine must have been a knowing smile and replies, “Yes, the Torah never changes, but you do.”
As our year progresses and we move closer to Sinai with each week of our Torah reading, the importance of focusing on not only the meaning of revelation, but also its method, becomes evident. Each clue the text provides — each carefully chosen word, phrase, or ambiguity creates endless theological keys to understanding our relationship with God and Torah.
Rabbi Marc Wolf
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.