From “The Gathering of the Manna” by James Tissot, c. 1900
From “The Gathering of the Manna” by James Tissot, c. 1900

What this week’s Torah portion teaches us about poverty in the Bay Area

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Beshalach

Exodus 13:17–17:16


Beshalach marks the transition from slavery to freedom and from life in Egypt to life in the desert. Several months after crossing the Red Sea, their bread (or matzah) provisions having run out, the Israelites grumbled about this newfound freedom in the desolate wilderness.

The solution to this dearth of resources?

Manna from heaven.

“I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day for  that day’s portion — that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not …”

Instead of the supply lasting months, as their provisions from Egypt had, they were provided with only enough manna for that day’s needs. “Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in their tent.”

The Israelites did so — some gathering a lot, some a little.

But when they measured it by the omer, one who had gathered much had no excess, and one who had gathered little had no deficiency. They had gathered as much as they needed to eat. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.”

The terms of this miraculous sustenance were tested immediately: Some gathered more than they needed, some left over manna for the next day (unsuccessfully) and some tried to gather manna on Shabbat (although it was forbidden, as they received a double portion for Shabbat on Friday).

They had a long road ahead of them to become accustomed to this daily miracle of manna from heaven. “And the Israelites ate manna 40 years, until they came to a settled land.”

Fast-forwarding 40 years, we see they never got used to the manna as their sole resource. In fact, Moses admits to the nation that in the years in the desert, the manna from God had, in fact “afflicted you and caused you hunger” (Deut. 8:3).

In the Bay Area Jewish community, 25 percent of households are financially vulnerable

The idea of affliction with food usually relates to hunger, as in the affliction of fasting on Yom Kippur.  How could the miraculous sustenance of manna from heaven that falls each day be compared to the hunger of fasting of Yom Kippur?

What affliction was there in eating the manna?

Talmudic sages Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi disagreed on the matter. One said, “There is no comparison between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not have bread in his basket. The affliction in eating the manna lay in there being no leftover food for the next day. Each day the people worried that they might not have any food to eat the next day.” (Yoma 74b)

Regarding that passage, Rashi explains that although one has enough to eat for today, they are worried about tomorrow. The Rashbam also elaborates on this idea in his commentary on the Torah: “To Afflict you — The kind of affliction experienced by people who have no ‘bread in their basket,’ and your life is hanging from On High every day.”

In our Bay Area Jewish community, and in the wider community, we know there are many with “no bread in their basket”, who might have just enough for today but are unsure about tomorrow — those facing food insecurity who worry, “Will I be able to feed myself? Will I be able to feed my family?”

Where I live in Alameda County, for example, an estimated 15.9 percent of children are food insecure. Those on a fixed income, such as social security or disability, are anxiously awaiting that next installment.

Those living paycheck to paycheck worry, “What will next month bring?”

In the Bay Area Jewish community, 25 percent of households are financially vulnerable, according to the Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities. (The percentage refers to those reporting they cannot make ends meet or are just managing.)

One lesson of the manna is that things are not always as they seem from the outside. The manna might have miraculously provided for an immediate need today, yet tested and even tormented the psyche of human beings in depending on that next installment as their only source of sustenance.

Amidst the apparent affluence of the Bay Area, the peace of mind that comes with food security and financial stability remains elusive for too many.

Maharat Victoria Sutton
Maharat Victoria Sutton

Maharat Victoria Sutton is the director of education and community engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.