Benjamin, I can’t help feeling that only you could have mastered such an incredible riddle – we can be seen or we may be invisible, we can be heard but may be muted, we are all celebrating together and yet we are not in the same place, we may be dressed smartly actively taking part in the shul service and yet wearing pyjama bottoms.
We are of course sad not to be physically with you in shul – but what you have architected is nonetheless a special occasion, unique and memorable and you have done brilliantly. As I understand it with home schooling A-levels and GCSEs in full swing you have maybe been able to slip a little under the radar of late. This though has been your moment to shine and you have certainly done so with diligence, dedication and of course an overdose of good humour! Jenny and Gideon – we have enjoyed a friendship over many years and if I may say – all your children – Joshua, Hannah, Naomi and Benjamin are a huge tribute to you both. Gideon you did offer to pepper my sermon with some of your jokes and I hope you don’t mind but on Benjamin’s advice I resisted!
Benjamin your Torah portion introduces us to that incredible food which sustained the children of Israel in the desert – the Manna. It is the food that traverses the chasm between the divine and the mundane realms – falling from heaven to be consumed on earth. What it symbolises I think has perhaps three important messages for you.
The importance of Community
As we read in Exodus 16:16: ‘’Gather of it each one according to their eating capacity, an omer for each person, according to the number of persons, each one for those in his tent you shall take’’. What it is is never quite clear, some scholars have linked it to the sap of the tamarisk tree, found in the wilderness of northern Arabia. Psalm 78:25 refers to it as ‘’the bread of Angels’’ What is clear is that it manifests for all. It is the divine source of nourishment that sustains the Israelites, the whole community, during their sojourn in the desert. Young, old, righteous, ordinary and even the wicked all derive succour from this daily divine substance.
The manna therefore teaches us the importance of community as indeed God’s concern is truly for all. There is perhaps no more urgent realisation today as we battle not just the pandemic but perhaps the greater pandemic of loneliness, the breakdown of community that the virus has served to amplify.
I was struck on recently reading the Turkish author Elif Shafek’s description and reaction to a visibly broken woman, in the opening chapter of her How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division.
“I looked out and there she was walking down the street, limping furiously as she carried a shoe with a broken heel…..It started to rain and the drops quickened, drip drip drip. A single heel echoed against the cobblestones – tap tap tap…..I felt guilty for not opening the window and talking to her asking if she was alright. I also felt ashamed because my first reaction had been to retreat into the safety of my flat as though I feared her melancholy might be contagious’’
How apt I thought as a metaphor for our world. The manna though, the bread of community, serves as a reminder that we too must give, in our own capacity to those in need and to each other, after this year we are all limping. The image of that divine bounty available to all is an appeal to heal our broken communities and to mend the divide in our age of division.
Ben when we discussed what being a Bar Mitzvah means to you – your immediate response was feeling an active member of the community. This is of course a wonderful community and you are lucky to be surrounded by such warmth, love and wise teachers that this community offers. You, I know, look forward to now teaching in the cheder, to giving back. As you continue your Jewish journey remember the importance of community and the valuable note that you can play in it.
The Midrash in Exodus Rabbah 25:3 tries to reconcile the various descriptions of the Manna as found in Torah. As it says ‘’the young tasted it as bread, old people as honey and infants as the taste of oil’’. The Talmud in Yoma 75a goes one step further where Rabbi Abbahu likens the word leshad meaning cake to ‘shad’ breast and has it that just as an infant finds many flavours in breast milk so too it is with manna. Perhaps then the manna and the way that it was individually experienced somehow represents truth as utterly multifaceted. Indeed In Kabbalistic thought the Zohar presents manna as granting the desert generation an embodied experience of knowledge of God. This is I think the second message for you Ben.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a 1953 essay contrasted two types of thinker – the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog has one big idea. Everything else is filtered out. The fox conversely has lots of ideas. It likes to see the broader context, how concepts fit together and is always anxious to bring more information to light. Berlin’s point is of course that it might be psychologically easier to be the hedgehog but to understand a complex world it pays to be a fox.
As Matthew Syed pointed out in the Sunday Times last week, ‘’the world is being dragged almost without our noticing towards ever more extreme hedgehoggery. Twitter users argue on the basis of 280-character caricatures of one another’s positions. Television interviewers seek not to elicit information but to provoke viral controversies’’. The age of Trump has indeed left in its wake all too often artificially emphatic stances, false certainties and empathy sacrificed in the rush to misconstrue and misrepresent.
The understanding of the manna however as tasting unique to each individual serves as a powerful metaphor and crucial reminder that neither meaning or truth is contained in bare facts, assertions, data points or simplistic headlines. This symbolism of the manna therefore is an important antidote to the destruction of nuance in our public discourse.
Ben in your own words you are ‘funny, sporty and friendly’ – the emphasis of one need not lead to the deletion of another. You are very good, as your Dad shared, at both Maths like him and languages like your mum. You are then naturally a fox and not a hedgehog. The Hebrew word for truth EMET – encompasses the full scope of the entire alphabet – aleph at the beginning, taf at the end and mem in the middle. Just as the manna could not be reduced to
any one flavour, so too truth may not be reduced to a simple frame. As you embark on your life journey now as a bar mitzvah seek truth wherever it may be found.
The Bread of Curiosity?
At the beginning of your reading today there is a play on words when the Israelites first encounter the manna. We read in Exodus 16:15 ‘’Man hu key loh yadoo mah hu’’ literally meaning ‘’What is it? ‘Man hu’ because they did not know what it was’’ to which Moses then has to go on to explain it to them as the bread given to them by the Lord. So the people’s initial response is one of sheer curiosity – it is the substance of questions and that Ben is a further message that I think it offers.
According to Levinas (I had to get this one in for your mum) it is exactly in the response to the call from another that language and knowledge are constructed. Knowledge is the product of the efforts of the subject to respond in a credible way to the questioning from the Other and that is I think exactly what takes place and is uncovered in this encounter between Moses and the people.
Just as it provokes questions it also necessitated response – it does not merely land into the people’s laps. Indeed the Talmud embellishes further – in Yoma 75a we read that ‘’the ordinary people had to go out and gather it, the wicked had to go about to and fro to gather it’’ only for the righteous did it come right to the doors of their tents and they would still have had to pick it up.
It is in this regard that I am reminded of the man in dire financial straits who prays to God to save him by letting him win the lottery. Days and then weeks go by and the man fails to win a single lottery. Finally in misery he cries out to God – ‘’You tell us – knock and it shall be opened for you, seek and you shall find. I am going down the tubes here and I still haven’t won the lottery.’’ A voice from above then answers; ‘’You’ve got to meet me half-way bubbeleh! Buy a ticket!’’
The manna might be there…but the people have to gather it! The manna is therefore also the bread of questions that sparks inquisitiveness and requires response – a partnership if you will between the people and God.
Ben when we spoke and touched on the pandemic you shared that we have to find solutions to things and that is how we can demonstrate our faith in God. You have an innate curiosity as perhaps particularly demonstrated by your extraordinary ability to take mundane things or situations and infuse them with your quirky sense of humour.
Ben the manna is a substance that led to the children of Israel’s all important; ‘’What is it?’’ It is a question that they asked towards the beginning of their rather counter-intuitive journey away from the mighty and powerful Egypt to an unknown destination. As you begin your adult journey never stop asking that question – what is it?
The manna we read about is enigmatic – it demonstrates the importance of community in the way that it manifests for all, as it resists any definition it highlights to us that truth is multi-faceted and it evokes questions.
Ben as you continue to grow take with you the love and support of your family and this community. Seek truth as a fox not a hedgehog and take comfort that unanswered questions are always more satisfying than unquestioned answers. May you be a blessing always to your family, this community, to all Israel and the world. AMEN!!