by: Mark Kirschbaum on January 24th, 2013 | 1 Comment »
In a previous essay, http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/02/01/weekly-torah-commentary-perashat-beshalach-on-the-madness-of-creativity/ , we discussed the transcendent nature of the creative experience, how one must reach a unique overcoming of normal consciousness in order to transform a religious experience into an artistic act that can itself be counted as Torah.
In the latter sections of this week’s Torah reading, we have the presentation of two pivotal events; the miraculous feeding of the populace via the “Man”, and a reminder of the never ending cruelty of people against people, as represented by the Amalekite attack on the newly freed slaves.
A brief summary of the narrated events: despite the remarkable event of the splitting of the sea, which was, as the Midrashim point out, gloriously experienced by even the least ‘conscious’ member of the people, very rapidly the people start complaining about the lack of food on their journey. The people kvetch for food, and God provides them with a miraculous food from heaven, a food form which was not recognized by humanity prior to this moment (much like Tang in the 60s, I suppose), which the people named Man, from the Hebrew ‘man hu‘, which literally means: ‘what is this?’. It is clearly described as some sort of supernatural food, which had to be collected daily, as its shelf life was only a day, except for Shabbat, when a double portion collected Friday would stay worm-free and edible through Shabbat. Afterward receiving the man, the people demand water, and this time, the tone of the response is a bit more hostile; God has Moshe hit a rock, and water is procured through this violence. Why does the first request elicit a positive response and the second one elicit a response suggestive of violence?
Incidentally, a teaching of the Tiferet Shelomo (there will be several this week, he is very creative on this perasha). The TS notes this difference in tone between the two episodes; in the Man episode, God acquiesces, whereas in the water episode, the tone of the response is less positive. He notes a critical difference between the way in which the request was phrased by the people- in the man request, the people complain that “we’ll all die here in the desert”, but the complaining is in the plural voice (verse 16:3), whereas in the water episode, its every man for himself, phrased in the singular ‘I’m going to die’ (verse 17:3). A request formulated for the good of all is met with a positive response, whereas a request formulated for only the individual (the 1%), is met with a grudging response.
Following this, the text relates how the exhausted former slaves were set upon by a desert tribe called Amalek; because of the nastiness of this attack upon defenseless people, the Torah requests that the people of Amalek be utterly destroyed, even their memory shall be blotted out.
I will suggest that there is a relationship between the food episodes and the Amalek episode, but first let us see how the Hasidic thinkers approach the concept of Man. The verse upon which our commentators dwell in discussing the Man is verse 16:4-
And God said to Moshe: I will cause bread to fall from the heavens like the dew for you, the people shall go out and collect an appropriate daily ration (dvar yom b’yomo), and thus will I test them, to see if they follow my instructions (Torati) or not.
The verse is peculiar for several reasons. First of all, what is the ‘test’ here, which will prove if the people are following God’s instructions? R. Simcha Bunim of Pszychyzka (in Kol Simcha) gives this test a Tibetan Buddhist spin. The test is that of overcoming desire. A person who still is motivated by desires, if given the same food every day will be unsatisfied, as his desires will lead him to want to taste everything. However, one who realizes that all existence is just an illusion, that the true purpose of existence is to provide the means by which the soul can serve God, will desire no more than what is necessary to maintain normal bodily homeostasis, and won’t have bothersome food desires or food issues which distract from the true goal. One food will satiate as well as any another food, so there should be no desire for any one specific food over any other. Thus the Man served as a test- if the people were unhappy with eating the same food every day, even though this food was adequate to keep their bodies at peak operation, it would mean that the people haven’t overcome their desirous nature yet; they are still slaves to desire.
Returning to our verse, there are other difficulties. The phrase ‘dvar yom b’ymo’, which means ‘daily ration’ , literally translates as ‘the discourse of the day on its day’, which is an unusual idiom, and hinted to the commentators that the text had more in mind than just the Man. The Ohev Yisrael, for example, sees a lesson about the relationship between theory and praxis here. He quotes the BT Nidda 73., which teaches that “one who learns halacha each day is certain of achieving the World To Come”. Is the World to Come then some kind of reward for Torah study? No, the Ohev Yisrael explains that it is not a prize, but rather a direct result of the daily study. If one truly comprehends the existential import of the lesson they had studied that day, they would immediately choose to live it immediately, they would be able to understand their learning as an imperative and actualize the lesson in the world. One who is capable of hearing a message in their studies to the point that they will immediately transform their world as a result, already lives, in the World To Come, because the World to Come is the future world transformed for the good as a result of their action. Thus, the Man metaphor. Truth rains down upon us daily, we must gather it and take sustenance from it right now, transforming our world into a better place NOW, and we should not ‘hoard it’ for some other time.
The Tiferet Shelomo asks, why shouldn’t the Man be usable from one day to the next, why did it need to be restricted for immediate use? He sees it as relating to truth, every day reveals a new truth, a new perspective. The Talmud teaches that ‘the Torah is given only to Man eaters’, linking intellectual attainment with this daily dosed physical sustenance. We say in the daily prayers that God renews and recreates the world at every moment (‘mehadesh bechol yom tamid maaseh bereishit‘, ‘God renews the act of Creation on every day’). The Torah is oft referred to as the blueprint of creation, thus, new insights into spirituality, the ‘chidushim‘ (as in ‘mehadesh‘ in the verse referring to re-creation), the novel newly imagined quanta of human inspiration parallels the continued moment-to-moment divine re-creation of the cosmos. The Man, as a daily sustenance descending from above, mirrors these novel human insights. Thus, the ‘test’ referred to in the verse above, is whether people will tune in and understand how to transform every new day into a new way of living and being. We are told that some of the people were capable of seeing deeply into the Man in this manner- the text states that some of the people intuitively knew on Friday to collect a double dose of man for Shabbat; notice that it is only in a later verse that Moshe tells the people that the Man wouldn’t fall on Shabbat.
The Kedushat Levi wonders why shouldn’t the Man fall on Shabbat? Plants and animals, our usual source of food, do in fact continue to grow on Shabbat, and we are allowed to eat them. The explanation he gives is that the Man, represents a spiritual flow from above to the earth. This kind of spirituality, which humanity receives from above, is limited, and fully actualized by the experience of the Sabbath, so more is not needed. On the other hand, the mundane day to day necessity of food, represents human activity and striving, that upward striving for spiritual meaning and transformation, that has not yet been fully achieved or completed, thus they are not limited by the Sabbath, positive praxis is a continual desire to improve the world.
Common to all these readings is a relationship between food and the spiritual. This relationship between ingestion and spiritual inspiration is not accidental. A major component of contemporary psychoanalysis is the understanding of neuroses which result as a result of fixation or perversion of the oral drive. Similarly, R. Zadok Hacohen notes that the first sin recorded in the bible is related to eating (the forbidden fruit of Eden), and thus all sin is derivative from a subversion of the normal oral desire. There is an aspect to the man narrative where the normal desire suddenly becomes loathsome and unbearable- when too much man was collected.
The text states that if too much man was taken, and an attempt made to keep it for the next day, as verse 16:20 states, the man would become wormy and begin to stink. The man became odious and disgusting.
Kristeva, in her Powers of Horror, describes the powerful sensation of food loathing as an evolution of desire into abjection-
…loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung…the repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage and much…The fascinated start that leads me towards and separates me from them… food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection… ‘I’ want none of that element… ‘I’ expel it … I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself… There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being…
The abjected item, that is, the item which evokes this response, abjection being more than mere avoidance, it is a loathing, almost a spiritual response, which one may view as the flip side, the exact opposite of overpowering desire, an abjected food is then an item which acts as a border sentry; beyond this point the border of the individual’s existence is at risk. Kristeva’s development of this abjection with regard to the mother and as such the image of femininity in society is interesting and worthy of further examination; for our purposes the link between food, waste, and individual self definition is illustrative. For not only does the man operate in this fashion for the individual, but as a defining characteristic of the spiritual seeker (as we saw above, the way to attainment of spiritual truth is the metaphorical way of the ‘man eaters’).
I suspect that this idea of the abjection of the man is why the Amalek episode is presented as the adjacent text, a parallel to the abjected ‘waste’ component in response to the ‘ingestion’ episode of the man; if the ingestion of the man as defining of our approach to spirituality is presented as one border towards which we are to strive, the opposite border, that which must be avoided, is represented by the hostile Amalek tribe.
The Tiferet Shelomo notes the linguistic cast in which the commandment regarding Amalek is presented. The text doesn’t simply say, wipe them out, rather it states(17:14):
‘Write this as a testimony in the book, that I will entirely eliminate Amalek’
This use of a textual “inscribed” message is appropriated by the Tiferet Shelomo as referring to each individual’s narrative, for, as it says in Genesis: ‘This is the book of the history of ha-adam, the individual person’, implying that every person is a unique text, a unique narrative.
There is a Talmudic teaching, which states that keeping an unproofed, uncorrected text, in one’s house is an error. An unedited text in Hebrew is referred to as a ‘sefer sh’ayno mughe‘ a book that was not reviewed. This word, ‘mughe‘, edited, proofread, contains a similar root to the word, ‘lehagot‘, which means “to study”, as in the phrase, ‘v’hagita bo yomam va’layla’, you shall study Torah day and night. So, the Tiferet Shelomo continues, through study, through a proofreading of our own selves, we will eliminate the Amalek of our own selves, as we eliminate waste, we will abject, our own illicit and improper thoughts (The Bat Ayin, for example, defines Amalek as ‘gasut ruach‘, that is, the coarse elements of our own personality).
We see, in the conjunction of these two texts, that of the man from heaven, which symbolizes our transformation of even the mundane act of eating into a set of spiritual victories, and that of the meaningless aggression of man against man as seen in the Amalek episode (the text presents it as pure barbarity upon innocent victims), the two defining poles, one striving upwards, and one reaching bottom, meant to define our individual and collective existential ‘borders’, borders that seem to be too often blurred in these sad confused times.