Parashat Hashavua for Beshalach
Rabbi Stan Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
Food is a major preoccupation in Parashat Beshalach. In Exodus, chapter 16 the Israelites are in an ugly mood. It has been two months since they left Egypt. They are sick of roughing it and they make sure Moses and Aaron know it: “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”
God’s response to this crisis is an air drop of emergency rations: 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…” This is the moment when the manna begins to fall. God will feed the people in this way for the next forty years.
This chapter of our parasha, which is known as Parashat HaMan (the Chapter of the Manna), came to be seen as a liturgical means of securing one’s livelihood. The Mishna Berurah, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, offers this explanation of the origin of the custom: “It is stated in the Yerushalmi, Tractate Berachot, that one who recites Parashat HaMan is assured that his sustenance will not be insufficient.” The text goes on to say that reciting Parashat HaMan is done "in order that one comes to believe that all of his sustenance comes through hashgacha pratit, through particular providence."
There are obviously huge theological problems with this, which the Mishna Berurah seems to acknowledge. Does God really dole out the goodies according to how faithful someone is in reciting a prescribed set of words? Are people poor and hungry because they don't do this? Is God that easily manipulated?
Yet, despite these difficulties, there is something compelling about praying for sustenance. Financial insecurity brings with it real distress. To be afraid that we will not be able to provide for our families is a terrible thing. None of this hurt and anxiety can be unwelcome to a compassionate God. We need somewhere to take this burden. Whatever its theological weaknesses may be, Rebbe Nachman’s advice to pour out all our woes before God and to ask for all that we need in life, both spiritually and materially, is psychologically sound. From this point of view, Parashat HaMan works whether or not it improves the bottom line.
In a contest between theology and basic human needs, theology probably doesn’t stand a chance. We see this dynamic at work in our prayers for the sick. Do we believe that only those who pray or are prayed for get well? Of course not. But it is our heart not our head that compels us to pray for healing, which makes perfect sense as the heart is where the hurt is.
When faced with fearful situations we have no obligation to be theologians. We do not believe that we can pray away a devastating bushfire, but that does not mean that prayer has no application to the situation. Prayer and rational action are complimentary means of coping.
These are fearful times in our region. As I write these words, the horror of the Australian bushfires continues. Hong Kong, my home, is experiencing two crises— one continuing, one developing. The civil strife of the past seven months and the fear being generated by the threat of the Wuhan Coronavirus are straining the social fabric of the city, harming its economy, and taking a considerable psychological toll on its people. Of course we are all taking whatever action we can to ameliorate the problems we face. At the same time, all of us would benefit from Rebbe Nachman’s practice of hitbodedut, of “alone time” with God, when we are free to express all our fears and needs.
As to what comes of such an outpouring, I don’t know. It just seems that there are times when the mind should shut up and let the heart speak. And so I pray that we can pray— without self-consciousness or self-censorship— for what we need. And then let the manna fall where it will.