It may just be my impression, but it appears that natural and unnatural disasters are growing alarmingly more common. Unless it just happens to be that the media is more on top of reporting disasters around the world, there has been a massive increase in such events in last few years. From all around the world we hear news of such disasters. Flooding, landslides, hurricanes. Cold snaps and terrible blizzards, heat waves with out-of-control wildfires. People trapped in coal mines, plane crashes, trains derailing and ships sinking, there is nowhere in the world that is immune to at least some of these events.
And disasters that cannot be attributed to ‘acts of G-d’ are more numerous as well: car bombs, shootings, missile attacks, knifings. Chemicals unleashed on civilians, terror imposed on the innocent, food poisoning, these too are inundating the columns of our newspapers in disturbing volume.
In this week’s Torah portion Moshe reiterates to the people that a result of the Israelites observance of the Torah and its dictates will be success and prosperity. Moshe goes on to encourage and give heart to the people that they should not fear from the strength of foreign nations. For just as He provided wonders and miracles that they had witnessed in Egypt, likewise G-d will enable them to succeed in the face of all the other nations they are afraid of.
Moshe bids the nation to remember all G-d has done for them during their long, 40 year journey in the wilderness. ‘You shall remember the entire road on which Hashem, your G-d, led you these forty years on the wilderness so as to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would observe His commandments or not.’ (8:2)
Moshe continues, describing the manna, the strange food they ate in the desert, as well as the miraculous resilience of the fabric of their clothing, which did not wear out in 40 years, and that their feet did not swell from walking in the desert.
So let’s get this straight: The Israelite nation was afflicted and tested in the desert. How? By being fed manna daily and having no wear and tear on their clothing.
Really? Is than an affliction? If I wanted to afflict someone I would put him in the path of a tornado, I would sit him under a cliff prone to avalanches, I might drop him off in a neighborhood in Homs or Damascus during skirmishes between rebels and government forces. The one thing I would not do, if my aim was to afflict someone, is to serve him highly nutritious and filling vitamin pellets, food which had the capacity of tasting like whatever one fancies, food so efficient and wholesome it generates no waste in the body.
I can understand the affliction of having dress that does not wear out. For someone accustomed to changing wardrobes every six months, for someone who does not wear the same article of clothing more than twice, this might qualify as a new and innovative method of torture. Having no wear and tear on the one petticoat, having no excuse for exchanging clothing for 40 years is indeed an affliction. But the food?! The heavenly food which was served daily and promptly? Where is the test?
The Rashbam, a grandson of Rashi, a French commentator who wrote works to supplement Rashi’s writings among other commentary, provides an explanation for us. The affliction was not that G-d provided food for each day, the affliction was that there was never any food for tomorrow. The people had to depend on G-d’s magnanimity for tomorrow’s breakfast. They had no pantry stocked with canned foods and dry cereals. Their freezers were not lined with meat, bread and rich’s whip for making Parve ice cream. They had nothing but their faith that G-d would come through and the manna would appear on the ground the next morning, neatly packed between layers of dew, waiting to be gathered by grateful and humble Jews, only too aware of their reliance on G-d, their bread-giver.
This was the test of the manna; to live with no reserves, no savings, to be entirely reliant on G-d’s providence.
This explanation is so compelling that it made it into the notes of the Artscroll Chumash.
But what was the purpose of this affliction, if we can indeed call it an affliction? What was the objective of keeping the Israelites on their toes for the 40 years? Would it not have been more efficient to deliver the manna in two week (fortnightly in New Zealand) installments rather than daily?
In order for a lesson to be properly learned it must sometimes be hammered in relentlessly to the point it becomes a habit. The long years in the wilderness provided an opportunity for the nation of Israel to become ingrained with a clear understanding that sustenance comes from G-d. If they had food in storage, if they were able, at any time, to feel self sufficient, the entire lesson would not have become indelible. For 40 years, day in and day out, they learned to depend on G-d alone for their food, collecting their daily rations of manna from outside. And never, not in 40 years, did G-d fail to come through with the food. They never had a crumb to leave for the next day but neither did they go hungry.
Armed with this now solid recognition of the source of their sustenance the Israelites were ready to transition into their next phase of existence, to cross into the Promised Land and become independent of the care provided in the wilderness. They would no longer have daily food meted out to them nor would they have guarantees that their clothing would not wear out and require replacing. No longer would a cloud smooth out the path before them and clear stones and sharp objects. They would be on their own, liable for themselves and responsible to find their own sustenance and means of survival. But they would always know that although G-d’s giving hand had disappeared from view it was still pulling the strings. Their ultimate test would be to carry the lesson that G-d is their constant provider into their new lives and to continue living with that faith under new circumstances.
A needy person instinctively prays. A fellow in danger will cry out, seeking help. Knowing how tenuous life is spurs us to seek more spiritual meaning in our lives. We live in a time of unprecedented plenty, a time when we have amassed a great deal of possession and the wherewithal to keep them. We have food stored not only for tomorrow, we can probably live a month on the reserves we have. We have meats, cheese, grains and fruit enough to feel calm and complacent. If not, there is a supermarket nearby where we can restock tomorrow. Never have we needed G-d so little. We’ve done it, we’ve succeeded in becoming self-sufficient and we did it all by ourselves.
I don’t want to speak for G-d, but chances are He is not planning to go back to the manna system and leave a daily parcel in our mailbox. So how is G-d supposed to remind us that He is still here, still with us and pulling the strings? How does He get us to give Him credit for our possessions and prosperity?
Later in the the same chapter (8:17) Moshe warns the people that they may come to feel that ‘My strength and the might of my hand has acquired for me all this wealth.’
We are weak and we need be constantly reminded Who is in charge. In many places in the world it is not safe to walk the streets. Our very lives are no longer safe in our own hands. Even if we can overcome and subdue all perpetrators of evil we are helpless to stop ‘natural’ disasters from occurring. An earthquake is all it takes to shake our faith in strong concrete and solid structures. Our belief in the safety provided by human enterprise collapses, swept away by floods and blown down by hurricanes. What is left is a painful reminder that we can only trust in G-d. But that reminder needn’t be painful. If we recognize that G-d is pulling the strings from behind the curtains He would not need to step up front-stage and show us Who is boss. If we would pay more attention to the soft and subtle taps on our shoulder, the times G-d tries to get our attention in less dramatic ways, we would be spared so much of the agony, fear and pain that we cause by forcing G-d’s Hand.
We have children’s book called ‘There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon.’ The story goes that a young child wakes up to find a small dragon in the house. He runs and tells the parent, who flatly denies that dragons exist. The child therefore ignores the dragon. It grows bigger and bigger, eventually filling the whole house until it is impossible to ignore. The parent still insists there is no such thing but finally the child rebels and acknowledges the dragon. At that moment it shrinks again to kitten-size. The Parent then asks why it had to be so big. “I’m not sure,” answers the child, “but I think it just wanted to be noticed.”
How intrusive must G-d be in order to earn our attention? What does it take for us to answer His call? Like the dragon, if G-d were recognized in small event He wouldn’t need to show Himself with major events. If an ‘act of G-d’ is acknowledged as such only when a catastrophe of great magnitude occurs we leave G-d little room choice…
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