Between the Lines—Beha•alotekha

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Exodus Rabbah 5:9

א״ר תנחומא דו פרצופין היה יוצא והורג לעובדי כוכבים שלא קבלוה ונותן חיים לישראל שקבלו את התורה הוא שמשה א״ל בסוף מ׳ שנה (דברים ה) כי מי כל בשר אשר שמע קול אלהים חיים מדבר מתוך האש וגו׳ אתה היית שומע קולו וחיית אבל עובדי כוכבים שומעים ומתים בוא וראה היאך הקול יוצא אצל כל ישראל כל אחד ואחד לפי כחו הזקנים לפי כחן הבחורים לפי כחן והקטנים לפי כחן והיונקים לפי כחן והנשים לפי כחן ואף משה לפי כחו שנאמר (שמות יט) משה ידבר והאלהים יעננו בקול בקול שהיה יכול לסובלו

אר״י בר חנינא אם תמה אתה על הדבר הזה למוד מן המן שלא היה יורד לישראל אלא לפי כח של כל אחד ואחד מישראל הבחורים היו אוכלין אותו כלחם שנאמר (שמות טז) הנני ממטיר לכם לחם מן השמים וגו׳ והזקנים כצפיחת בדבש שנאמר (שם) וטעמו כצפיחת בדבש ויונקים כחלב משדי אמו שנאמר (במדבר יא) והיה טעמו כטעם וגו׳

 

R. Tanhuma said: [God's Voice] went forth in two aspects, slaying the idolaters who would not accept it but giving life to Israel who accepted the Torah. As Moses said to them at the end of 40 years: 'For what mortal ever heard the Voice of the living God speak out of the fire, [as we did, and lived]?' (Deut. 5: 23). You have heard God's Voice and lived, but the idolaters heard it and died. Come and see how the Voice went forth to each Israelite with a force proportioned to his individual ability—to the old, according to their ability, and to the young, according to theirs; to the children, infants and women, according to their ability; and even to Moses according to his ability, as it is said: 'As Moses spoke, God answered him in a Voice' (Exod. 19:19)—in a voice that he could endure . . .

R. Yose b. Hanina says: If you are doubtful of this, then think of the manna that descended with a taste varying according to the needs of each individual Israelite. The young men ate it like bread, as it says: 'Behold, I will rain down for you bread from heaven . . . ' (Exod. 16:4); the old, like wafers in honey, as it says: ' . . . it tasted like wafers in honey' (Exod. 16:31). To the infants, it tasted like their mothers' breast milk, as it says: . . . It tasted like rich cream. (Num. 11:8)

Only in Hebrew leap years does Shavu'ot coincide with Parashat Beha·alotekha, but every day we are faced with the challenges that this midrash addresses. In response to verses from this week's holiday and Shabbat Torah readings, we find ancient wisdom about the universal message of our Torah along with exclusionary statements about nonbelievers. How can we embrace a text that describes how God directly spoke to and fed our ancestors according to their individual needs and abilities while also slaying idolaters?

As my former JTS instructor Rabbi Shai Held has taught, perhaps the greatest idolatry today is the cynical denial that our world can be radically transformed. Our ancestors, distant from God and liberty due to centuries of enslavement, suddenly encountered the sacredness of freedom, the rule of law, and the miracle of "bread from heaven." Now we can each experience those changes as well. Just as the Israelites were oppressed, societal forces today persist in keeping certain groups physically and spiritually impoverished through lack of access to clean water, affordable food, and education. We must make these vital resources more available by sharing the blessings of manna and Torah we have received in order to fulfill this text's vision of life-giving inclusivity.