Parshat Beshalach: The Miraculous, Wondrous, Unimaginable, What-cha-ma-call-it

A while ago I saw a funny cartoon (I think today it’s called a meme though I still don’t understand why we can’t just keep calling it a cartoon…) that I thought speaks beautifully of our era.  It generally goes like this: two rabbits sitting on a park bench and the caption reads: ‘Life Before Google’. One rabbit says to the other, ‘I wish I knew more about the history of rabbits’ and the other rabbit says, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.’   Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how everything is at our fingertips and communication is but a few clicks away. When my husband is late getting home, I admit I have said to him: ‘if only there were a handy little device in your pocket that could help you let me know.’

So, I can’t help but wonder if there is any excitement left in the unknown.  Do we feel that things are beyond our reach conceptually? Could we ever be the rabbits on the park bench?

One of the great moments of mystery is when we explain to our kids that they’re going to have a sibling.  I remember understanding never to tell a child that we love them so much, we just couldn’t wait to have another.  It’s like telling your spouse you love them so much you couldn’t wait to be intimate with someone else. It sounds logical but it’s a terrible thing to communicate.

Whichever way we told our kids about a new addition to the family, I am always struck by the things kids filled in because we neglected to address their perspective.  Some of my kids assumed that the new baby would live with my parents. Friends of mine mentioned their kids thought the new baby would come home with its own mother because they didn’t agree it could share theirs.  Other friends mentioned that they dropped their daughter with her grandparents on the way to the hospital to deliver the new baby. After coming home with the baby, the daughter refused to visit the grandparents for a long time, afraid the parents would pick her up with yet another new baby.  When we think we know everything about something we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, we are suddenly struck with understanding how little we really know.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Beshalach, Israel leaves Egypt and starts to complain about not having food.  God sends manna from heaven. The description of manna is that it’s off-white, moist, spoils easily, it’s flavour changes person to person although it always looks the same.  The Sages tell us that the way God sends the manna and feeds Israel is a means of building trust between God and Israel. In essence, the Torah is describing mother’s milk.  

It also fits the context in that Israel, as a people, were just born by walking through the dry canal of the Red Sea and now they want to nurse and bond.  In fact, later in the Torah, Moses will get angry with God and say he no longer wants to ‘nurse’ the people. Remembering that Israel left Egypt with full supplies of everything they need, including cattle, it completes the image of a newborn in a household filled with food but unable to access any of it.  The newborn needs a special food relationship that nourishes and builds trust.

But while the imagery is familiar to us, it is completely unknown to Israel.  The Torah says they wake up in the morning, look outside and see the ground covered with this stuff, at which point they exclaim: ‘what is that stuff?’, in Hebrew: ‘maan hu?’, in transliteration: ‘manna’ and in translation: ‘It’s manna’.  And that is how we get the word ‘manna’ that literally means: the ‘what is that?’ (the word what-cha-ma-call-it comes to mind).

We are so baffled by it, that we perpetuate the name that embodied the wonderment.  And yet, it is the Divine expression of what goes on naturally between the females and babies of every mammal in creation.  We’ve taken it for granted to the extent of not recognizing it when we see it in our parshah.

The Torah shows us that wondrous things occur around us constantly.  With our phones in our pockets, and seemingly unlimited access to everything through our electronics, we can still be the rabbits on the bench.  Abraham Joshua Heschel used to teach that we should opt not to ask God for success or power, but choose instead to ask God for wonder. It sits around us all the time, it’s a matter of perspective.