Food, Faith, and Freedom
by Jhos Singer
This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha (
The riffraff amongst them were beset with a craving, and the Israelites joined them weeping, and said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish, which that we ate in Egypt for free! And the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic! But not, our soul is parched, there is nothing to look forward too, just Manna!”
Now the Manna was like coriander seed of a mysterious appearance. The people went around and gathered it, and prepared it in many ways, and when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell too. (Exodus 11:4-9)
There it is. “Hey, we may have been enslaved to Egypt, oppressed so hard we could not stand, criminalized for our mere existence, dehumanized and abused, but at least we had food we liked… And it was free!” Unbelievable, right?
Well, it’s not so different now. Human appetite, whether gastronomic or otherwise, is a powerful force. We actually crave the cycle of difficulty followed by pleasure. We are, most of us, inclined to experience increased enjoyment of delights when they are preceded by a period of pain, deprivation, or illness. So there is a way that the conditions in Egypt, of abject slavery and oppression, enhanced our spiritual appreciation of primal experiences, like eating.
The Torah sets a high bar for us. It asks us to be conscious, to be mindful, to be ethically concerned about others, to form deep and trusting bonds with each other and with the Ineffable Divine. It wants us to be an example to others, to create safe/brave space for each other, and to master our appetites. And it notes that we consistently fail in this challenge.
Manna is a beautiful metaphor for a reality in which basic existential needs are provided for everyone—community, shelter, and food enough for everyone living one day at a time. Manna can be eaten raw or cooked any way you’d like, it is free, it provides 100% of your bespoke daily nutritional and caloric needs, automatically tailored to each person. It requires no weeding, feeding, or tending—you just pick up what you need off the ground. And the people hate it. The Torah literally says, “Ein kol bilti el-ha’maneneinu
Perhaps one of the most significant spiritual challenges we face is how to prepare ourselves for a time of equality and peace. And I think that one of the ways to practice is engage in positive prayer and radical action; to notice the how our appetites lead us to addictive thinking and behavior, and to resist that; to pray for restoration rather than revenge; to have faith rather than fear.
We are hounded by industries that have made yanking our chains an art form. Let’s cultivate ways to resist them. We are constantly being herded in the direction of stress and longing. Let’s practice the art of elevating the ordinary. Our culture hails elite power and derides everyday compassion. Let’s turn our gaze from Top Chef and shine some light on home cooks.
Pop music served as a Torah of sorts for many of us in our youth. If I were to try to find a parallel teaching from that codex for this week’s Torah wisdom, I think I’d choose this line from the Stones:
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.”
May we have the wisdom to know the difference between want and need, may we move in the direction of unshackled wholeness.