Why Do We Celebrate Shavuot & What's So Exciting About Getting A Bunch Of Laws?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Laws of Shavuot
"Shavuot! Laws!!! WOOHOO!!!
...said no one ever.
So... why should we be excited about celebrating Shavuot? About the day when we honor the giving of the Torah? A super pious person might say: "We're rejoicing in the obligations that God placed upon us!", and while that sounds really nice and religious, let's get real: those laws are burdensome. So why are we pretending that they're so great?
And when you think about when God imposed these mitzvot on us, you have to ask: Wasn't it pretty lousy timing? We received the Torah fewer than two months after leaving bondage in Egypt. It's like we just got done celebrating our freedom from one master, from Pharaoh, and all of a sudden, God swoops in and says, "It's nice being free, huh? BAM!! 613 laws. You answer to Me now. Say bye-bye to your freedom. How do you like that?"
And... that's what we're celebrating on Shavuot??!
Look, no one's suggesting that we defy God. He's... God. The laws are the laws. But do we really have to be excited about it?
Watch this video and get excited about why we celebrate Shavuot. For real.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Aleph Beta.
Why Is Shavuot Celebrated?
Well, Shavuot is in the air and I want to begin by asking you a few questions about this upcoming holiday.
Why Do We Celebrate Shavuot Laws?Tradition has it, that this holiday celebrates the Revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. It is, in other words, a celebration of law – obligations that God places upon us. But the whole notion of a holiday that celebrates law, of all things… I don't know; I certainly don't want to sound heretical over here, but honestly, how excited does one usually get about laws? The tax code. Lawyer's offices. Courtrooms. Penal statutes. Rules. These are the words we usually associate with law – but none of these words inspire much excitement in any of us. When I go to pay my traffic ticket at the County Courthouse, I don't see the citizens rejoicing in the hallways with champagne and party hats, overjoyed at the privilege of participating in the state's judicial system. Following laws might be something you are supposed to do, but it doesn't sound like something we would greet with overwhelming joy, something to be "celebrated." Why, then, do we celebrate this, with the holiday called "Shavuot"?
In a way, this question gets compounded, if you think about Shavuot and its proximity to the holiday of Passover. On Passover, we celebrate our freedom. Our freedom from what? From a master by the name of Pharaoh who imposed all sorts of laws and obligations upon us. And now… now we've suddenly got another Master? Okay, so it's God; and yes, you can't see Him, He's up there in the Heavens, and maybe he's not quite as mean as the last one – but look, there's still all this stuff you've got to do for your Master.
So why do we celebrate all these new laws? We might have to follow these new laws – we're not going to defy God – but why should we celebrate these new obligations? But celebrate law we do. Make no mistake about it: Shavuot asks us to get excited about law. How are we supposed to do that?
What Does Shavuot Mean?So I'd like to suggest a theory here. To understand why we celebrate the law, and how we can possibly do so without getting whiplash after celebrating freedom on Passover, maybe we can find a clue in the name of this law-celebration-holiday. It is called Shavuot. Weeks. Not Law-day or Torah-day. Just "Weeks." Why call it that? Well, you say, here's why it is called "weeks": Shavuot comes 7 weeks after Pesach! But...how is that really an answer? When it came time to name the holiday of Purim, no one suggested we should call the holiday "T-Minus 30 Day" – because, look, Purim always falls out thirty days before Passover!
Clearly, the period connecting Passover to Shavuot is not just a seven-week period that happens to separate two holidays; rather, it is something more essential than that. It seems we're meant to conceptualize Shavuot as some sort of climactic culmination of this seven-week process. As such, it would follow that we can't really understand Shavuot without understanding the significance of that seven-week period. So let's jump in and try and make some sense of it.
Understanding the Background of Shavuot's RulesThe transition period between Passover and Shavuot, these 7 weeks are known, in modern parlance, as Sefirat Ha'Omer, the counting of the Omer. The Omer is a grain offering that, according to Leviticus 23, was brought on the second Day of Passover, and it is the event that kicks off the counting of these weeks.
Feels like a dead-end, right? Shavuot as a celebration of Sinai, I get that, at least more or less. But Rabbi, what seems even more hopelessly unrelatable than a holiday celebrating law? A holiday celebrating a grain offering! Rabbi, I'm not much into korbanot. I never understood sacrifices, offerings. In the 21st century, this stuff doesn't quite call out to me. Can't we just think of Shavuot as "10 Commandments Day" and leave it at that?
Well, unfortunately, we can't – or at least we can't if we are interested in understanding Shavuot on its own terms. Let's explore a bit: What, if anything, was the larger significance of the Omer offering?
The Customs and Laws Leading Up to ShavuotAt face value, the Torah doesn't tell us much about its significance. We know that, from a halachic standpoint, the Omer certainly had a function: The Torah prohibits people to consume the new year's harvest of grain until after the Omer offering is brought. But the Torah doesn't tell us a whole lot else about the offering. Its larger significance, if there is one, seems somewhat shrouded in mystery.
But perhaps the language the Torah uses to describe the bringing of the Omer can offer us some clues. As I mentioned before, the Omer offering is brought on the second day of Passover. You know, there's a pretty clear way to say that: Hear ye, Israel – bring the omer on the second Day of Passover. But the Torah doesn't say that. Instead, the Torah tells us the laws of Passover, and right after that, it tell us that mimacharat HaShabbat – "on the Day after the Sabbath" – that's when you bring the Omer.
We are left to figure out that the term "Shabbat" in this context doesn't refer to Saturday, like it usually does; it instead refers to the first day of Passover, and that the Omer is brought on the day following that first day. Weird, right? Why does the Torah make it so unnecessarily complicated, instead of just telling us, bring the omer on the second day of Passover? For some reason, when reading about the Omer, it is hard to resist the notion that the Torah seems kind of fixated on the idea of Sabbath. First it was that "Day After the Sabbath" talk. But then… we meet the Sabbath again in the context of the Omer.
You see, the Torah tells us that after you bring the Omer offering, we are meant to count fifty days until we get to our next holiday, Shavuot. But instead of just telling us "count fifty days," the Torah phrases the count in terms of weeks: It says 'count seven full weeks.' And the language for those weeks? You guessed it: Sheva Shabbatot. Seven "Sabbaths" we are supposed to count, for a total of 49 days.
And then… just when you thought we'd seen the last of "Sabbaths" and "the Day After the Sabbath…" – bang, it's back: The Torah says: mimacharat hashabat hasheviit… "on the day after the seventh of those Sabbaths," that's when you have another holiday, on which you bring an entirely new offering: The Shtei HaLechem, two loaves of bread. And of course, this is the holiday of Shavuot.
So… what's with the Omer and all this 'Sabbath' and 'day-after-the-Sabbath' talk? Why is the Omer so closely tied to that phraseology? Clue Number Two.
So that's clue number one to the larger significance of the Omer: The preponderance of all that talk about Sabbath. And here's clue number two. What does the word Omer actually mean? As it turns out, it is a measurement of grain; the Torah in Exodus defines it as a measurement equivalent to a tenth of an eiphah. So that's how much grain was in the omer offering. Now, I know that may not mean a whole lot to you just now, all you folks used to pounds, ounces, liters and all that good stuff – but just bear with me for a minute. Let's now talk about the Shavuot.
On Shavuot, 7 times 7 Shabbatot later, we bring another offering involving grains: The two loaves of bread known as Shtei HaLechem. And… how much grain should be used to bake those two loaves? The Torah specifies that two tenths of an ephah were used. So, here's clue number two: One gift to God of an omer worth of grain… followed by another gift that is double as much as that. Does that remind you of anything?
And now, clue number three. We all know what Passover commemorates: The Exodus from Egypt. And, we all know what Shavuot commemorates: The Giving of the Torah at Sinai. So… curious minds want to know: What about the time in between those two holidays – the days we call The Omer? Might they be celebrating something, too? Could they be celebrating something that happened, somewhere out there in the desert, as the Israelites were making that 49 day trek from Egypt to Sinai?
Could the Omer, a gift of grain to God, be celebrating another gift of grain that we received, out there in the desert, a gift that has "double-as-much-ness" associated with it? A gift that has the idea of both "tomorrow" and "Sabbath" associated with it?
What might that gift have been?
Manna: The Background for Receiving Shavuot Mitzvot?Well, a final clue comes, I think, in the form of a particularly revealing coincidence: That word for the grain offering whose larger significance we've been trying to figure out – the Omer Offering? Well, it turns out that word, Omer, is a very rare one. It appears only one other time in all the Five Books of Moses.
The only other time it appears is with reference to... the Manna. The Manna we received in the desert after we left Egypt, but before we arrived at Sinai. The manna which fell for us on every day… except for the Sabbath. The manna of which we received from Heaven one portion every day of the week, but a double portion on Friday, in preparation for the Sabbath which would happen… tomorrow.
Yeah, that manna, whose single portion per person of Manna got miraculously doubled every Friday – how much, exactly, was that portion? Well, the Torah tells us: זֶ֤ה הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה לִקְט֣וּ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ אִ֖ישׁ לְפִ֣י אָכְל֑וֹ עֹ֣מֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּ֗לֶת
Yes, fair viewer, when we add it all up – all those language particularities which show up with respect to the Omer Offering – the double as much-ness, the emphasis on Sabbath, on tomorrow – they all have their genesis in the gift of the Manna, right down to the measurement of the Omer itself.
The Omer offering is couched in language about Sabbath and 'tomorrow' because the Manna was all about Sabbath and tomorrow. As a matter of fact, the gift of the Manna was the very first time, historically, that the idea of Sabbath was first introduced to the People of Israel.
So you see, all the dots seem to line up. It seems that, just like Pesach and Shavuot, the holidays that bookend the Omer – the Omer time-period itself just might be meant to celebrate something too: The Manna.
Laws as the Significant Theme of ShavuotSo if we are right about the significance of the Omer, the question, I think, we need to ask ourselves, is this: It appears that the Torah designates our experience with the gift of Manna as some kind of predicate, almost a preparation of sorts, for our Receiving the Torah. Historically, we first experienced one, then the other. And every year, we kind of re-enact that history, celebrating first the Omer and then Shavuot; first a 7 week Omer count, then a Feast of Weeks, the culmination of that count.
So… why should that be? What is it about Manna, of all things, that paves the road from the freedom of Passover to the Law-giving of Shavuot? What does the Manna have to teach us about how to celebrate the law, and what secrets does it have to share with us about the meaning of Shavuot?
A Law-Receiving TestI suggested in our last video that our experience of the gift of the Manna in the desert was in some way preparatory for the Sinai experience that would occur weeks later. The question is: Why should that be so? What about the manna, of all things, would prepare us for an experience of Law-Receiving? The two things seem to have little to do with each other.
Well, come with me, for a minute, back to to the story of the Manna and let's see if we can find any clues.
The Manna was first given to the Children of Israel right after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds. The unleavened bread they had taken with them from Egypt had been used up, and they were desperately hungry. Let's pick up the story with the language of the Torah itself:
[וַיִּלּ֜וֹנוּ] כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃ (ג) וַיֹּאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְהוָה֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאָכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע כִּֽי־הוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֙נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כָּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּרָעָֽב׃
So God responds to their complaint, to their desperation, and gives them bread... bread that comes not from the ground, but from an alternative source altogether: הִנְנִ֨י מַמְטִ֥יר לָכֶ֛ם לֶ֖חֶם מִן־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וְיָצָ֨א הָעָ֤ם וְלָֽקְטוּ֙ דְּבַר־י֣וֹם בְּיוֹמ֔וֹ "I shall rain for them bread from the sky," God says, "and the people will go out and collect it, each day's portion on that day..." This bread will be provided for the people daily, God says. Now, in the rest of this verse I've just started to quote for you, God goes on to provide a reason, an explanation, for why He is providing this bread. But before I read it to you… just stop there for a moment and try to guess the reason.
And, you know, it's not so hard. If I were God, I might say: "Well, look, the people were complaining they were hungry, and I wanted to feed them." Pretty easy, right? Look, I see you folks are hungry. Sorry about that. Truth is, this whole leaving Egypt thing was very last minute, and the Heavenly Committee on Wilderness Travel and Supply-Line Maintenance – well, it looks like they forgot to call the caterer. My apologies. Here's some manna for you guys. But God doesn't say anything like that. Instead, here's what God says about why He is feeding them Manna:
לְמַ֧עַן אֲנַסֶּ֛נּוּ הֲיֵלֵ֥ךְ בְּתוֹרָתִ֖י אִם־לֹֽא׃ [I'm giving them Manna] so that I may test them, to see whether they will follow My Torah, My Laws, or not...
What a strange thing to say. It sounds like God means to use this gift of the Manna not just to feed the people, but as a sort of test – a test to see whether Israel could or would, somehow, live by Divine Laws. This, remember, was just a few weeks before the giving of the Torah at Sinai – and somehow, the Manna was going to be some sort of test Israel would experience before this big law-giving event at Sinai.
So I want to say a few things about this. First, we have here some evidence for the theory I began to suggest to you earlier. It's not just you and me conjecturing on the basis of the Omer leading up to Shavuot that the Manna somehow prepared us for Sinai; the Torah itself seems to basically be saying the same thing: God seems to have designed the Manna as a kind of "law-receiving" test for the people. First, the people were going to get a few laws together with this Manna and that would sort of be like a trial for them, to prepare them for a much grander law-receiving event.
And, of course, the Manna did have some laws that came with it. Three of them, to be precise: A. Only take an omer's worth of manna every day per person. B. Don't leave any manna over til the morning. C. And, no collecting manna on Saturdays – Saturday was going to be designated as the Sabbath, and manna-collecting is entirely off-limits that day. Instead, you get a double portion each Friday. So those are the laws. You know, pretty basic, pretty simple.
But here's the thing: It is one thing to give a few laws with manna and it is another thing entirely to define the purpose of the giving of manna as some kind of law-receiving test for the people. I mean, why would a "test" like that be needed? How, exactly, would that test prepare us for the giving of the Torah? And, maybe the most uncomfortable question of all – doesn't the whole notion of manna-as-'test' kind of take away from the warm and fuzzy feeling of this gift? Raining bread from the sky, that seems like a beautiful act of care. Testing people to see how good they are at keeping laws – not so much. Was the manna really just some elaborate SAT exam?
Manna and Law: What Kind of Test?I think maybe it all comes down to that word: "test." "Anasenu" in Hebrew, so that I may test that - that comes from the Hebrew word nisayon - which can mean test. But not all tests work the same way. A regular garden variety of test, like an SAT exam, is designed for the benefit of a teacher, or another authority figure. The test helps them see if the student adequately studied; if they learned to mind that silent "p" when spelling "psychology." But what does the kid get out of it? Not very much, except for a whole lot of nerves.
Other tests are designed for the kid as well; they are, in a way, the ultimate learning experience. The classical commentator, the Ramban, suggests that the Hebrew word for test, nisayon, is, in fact, that kind of test; a test designed to help the person confronting it learn something transformational about themselves. So maybe the Manna was a trial in that sense; maybe it was, in a way, designed for our benefit. We were traveling through the desert, on the way to Sinai – where we were going to be asked by God to accept a serious number of laws. So maybe God was giving us an exercise to get us used to the idea of Divine Law – try keeping these three laws, folks, and then, at Sinai, we can talk about a whole bunch more.
So, let's take a minute to look at the laws that were given with the manna and perhaps we might be able to see how that might be true.
Self-Reinforcing LawWhen you look at the three laws that God gave to us along with the Manna, you will find that they each evinced a very special quality, a quality that is utterly unique to them. Take the first law: Nobody is allowed to collect more than an omer per member of their household. A very nice law. But here's the thing: the Torah tells us that there were people who tried to violate the law, to collect more. And there were some who, despite their best efforts, collected less. But what happened when some collected more and others less? Well, the Torah tells us that when those people came home, and checked their bags – they all miraculously had exactly the same amount: An omer per person. In the words of the text:
וַיַּעֲשׂוּ־כֵ֖ן בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַֽיִּלְקְט֔וּ הַמַּרְבֶּ֖ה וְהַמַּמְעִֽיט׃ (יח) וַיָּמֹ֣דּוּ בָעֹ֔מֶר וְלֹ֤א הֶעְדִּיף֙ הַמַּרְבֶּ֔ה וְהַמַּמְעִ֖יט לֹ֣א הֶחְסִ֑יר אִ֥ישׁ לְפִֽי־אָכְל֖וֹ לָקָֽטוּ׃ Now let's look at the next law: No trying to save any Manna overnight for tomorrow. Again, the Torah tells us that there were people who tried to violate the law. And what happened?
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אִ֕ישׁ אַל־יוֹתֵ֥ר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃ Moses said to the people: Each person shouldn't leave over any manna until tomorrow.
וְלֹא־שָׁמְע֣וּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה But the people didn't listen, וַיּוֹתִ֨רוּ אֲנָשִׁ֤ים מִמֶּ֙נּוּ֙ עַד־בֹּ֔קֶר and some left over manna until the morning – וַיָּ֥רֻם תּוֹלָעִ֖ים וַיִּבְאַ֑שׁ – and when they did, it became infested with worms and it stank.
Okay, law number three: No collecting Manna on the Sabbath. Well, what if you tried to? So... you might have guessed by now: The text tells us that you just wouldn't be able to: There just wouldn't be any manna out there. A double portion of Manna fell on Friday, which was meant to be enough for two days – and on Saturday, no Manna fells at all. It was a six day a week event, only.
So look at the common denominator here. All of these laws have a particular, wondrous quality about them – a quality not shared by any other of the Torah's laws, to my knowledge: They were all, miraculously, self-enforcing. That is, you can't, actually, violate them – even if you try. It's like these three laws that God gave us – it was law on training wheels. Little Jimmy, he's six years old, he's learning to ride that bike, and he's worried he's going to fall and he's petrified; and then he loses his balance, and he loses it again – but he never falls, because Dad has those training wheels. It feels like somehow the laws of the Manna were like that: Law on training wheels. First try the training wheel law, and then, eventually, you'll get to Sinai where you can experience law 'for real.' You'll get laws that you actually can violate; but before you get there, you'll get practice with laws. You will get training-law. Self reinforcing law. The kind of law that gets you used to the real thing.
Questions to ConsiderSo, it seems like we were correct in making our inference from the omer that the manna was a sort of a preparation for receiving of law. But I think we need to dig a little deeper to understand exactly what this would mean. For example, let's say these laws, the Manna laws, were like "training wheel laws." Well, why, exactly, were training wheels for law necessary? And exactly how were these three particular Manna laws designed to prepare us for the real thing? I mean, what potential difficulty were they designed to help us, somehow, overcome?
To borrow a bit more from the training wheel analogy I gave you above: When a father puts training wheels on a bike for a kid, the father is addressing a deep source of anxiety for the kid. The child is afraid, petrified, of bike-riding. He or she is, like, frozen; they just won't get on the bike. Well, if Manna was 'training-wheel law,' was there some analogous source of fear that would have confronted Israel when they contemplated accepting the laws of the Torah at Sinai? Was there something that would have frozen them, simply blocked them from even thinking about accepting these laws?
What might that fear have been?
I wonder if the answer to this question might be connected to another question I asked you earlier, at the very start of these videos. It was this:
Why should we have a whole holiday celebrating law, of all things? Especially after having so recently escaped the bonds of another master, who had all sorts of rules and expectations, why would God think that we'd get all excited about a whole mess of hundreds of other new laws and expectations imposed upon us?
Well, another way to phrase that question, if you think about it, is actually in terms of 'fear': We just escaped a tyrant. A master with all sorts of terrible laws and demands. Perhaps our association with law was tainted by that. Perhaps the notion of accepting law from a new master would terrify us, would freeze us.
It turns out that if we read the text of the Manna story carefully, the Torah itself, remarkably, seems to be almost forcing us towards this conclusion. For in the Torah's account of the Manna in the desert, we find something astonishing: We will hear in those words memories of one of our most difficult and painful experiences in Egypt, one of our scariest national nightmares. Yes. If we are truly to understand the secret of the Manna and the larger meaning of Shavuot, we will need to confront that nightmare in our collective past, and see it for what it was.
Recalling the Past through the MannaSo, as I just suggested to you, the Manna story we have been looking at seems to contain very deliberate echoes of a terrible episode we experienced back in Egypt. Which episode? The episode in which Moses appears before Pharaoh, for the very first time, to make an appeal to him. We find it in Exodus, chapter 5.
Moses asks Pharaoh, in the name of God, for a few days off from work for his slaves, so they can go into the desert and worship. Pharoah brazenly denies the request. He says: I don't know any deity by the name of Yud and Hey and Vav and Hei – and, anyway, I'm not agreeing to any long weekends. Hen Rabim atah am ha'aretz, he says – I've got a lot of slaves, v'hishbatem otam misivlotam – and you're making them take time off from their work.
I have bricks that need to be made, things to do, pyramids to build – I've got my country's GDP to worry about, and you're talking about long weekends? So what does Pharoah do? He actually doubles down, quite literally, on the demands he has been making of his slaves. The slaves have been forging bricks. Pharaoh now angrily insists that no more shall his slaves be provided with straw to make those bricks; instead, they will have to collect their own straw. And… matkenot haleveinim... – "lo tigr'eu mimenu," I still demand no fewer of those bricks. The people are stuck now with this nearly impossible demand.
So what happened? Well, they went out in the fields to collect the straw and make the bricks, but, for the most part, predictably, they fell short of their brick-producing quotas. So the taskmasters would whip the slaves, and as they did, they'd taunt them sarcastically:
מַדּ֡וּעַ לֹא֩ כִלִּיתֶ֨ם חָקְכֶ֤ם לִלְבֹּן֙ כִּתְמ֣וֹל שִׁלְשֹׁ֔ם
Why didn't you fill your quotas for bricks, as you did yesterday and the day before? (v. 14) Seeking some way out of this impossible situation, the Israelites sent representatives to Pharaoh. They tried desperately to explain that his demands were impossible to fulfill; that they were willing to work, but that he wasn't treating them fairly. But in response, Pharaoh simply brushed aside their complaints with an attack:
וַיֹּ֛אמֶר נִרְפִּ֥ים אַתֶּ֖ם נִרְפִּ֑ים עַל־כֵּן֙ אַתֶּ֣ם אֹֽמְרִ֔ים נֵלְכָ֖ה נִזְבְּחָ֥ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃
And he said: 'you're lazy, lazy! That's why you are saying let us go to worship our God… Does This Sound Familiar? Okay, so that's the story back in Exodus chapter 5. Now my question for you is: Does any of this sound familiar? In point after point, this narrative involving Pharaoh, the slaves and the bricks – it somehow seems to foreshadow the later Manna narrative you and I had been looking at. Look at all the elements here that seem to span both stories... In both stories, there is a master – and there are his 'servants'; those who will go out collecting something in the fields.
In Egypt, the people were collecting straw for Pharoah's bricks; later, in the Wilderness, they were collecting Manna for themselves. What's more, in both stories there were daily quotas for that which they collected: A daily quota of bricks for each person, a daily allotment of how much Manna you could collect per person. Not only that, but the Hebrew phrase for that daily allotment – it's the exact same in both stories: in Egypt, the people collected d'var yom beyomo, a day's quota of bricks every day; and wouldn't you know it, in the desert, they collected d'var yom beyomo. But this time, the phrase means: A day's portion of manna each and every day. (And, by the way, that phrase – it is not like it comes around every day.
These are the very first two times in the Torah that this phrase, d'var yom beyomo, is ever used.) And, the parallels don't stop there. Remember how Pharaoh imposed double as much work on his slaves? First they had to make bricks, then they had to collect the straw and make bricks? Well, 'double-as-much'-ness makes its way into the Manna narrative, too: God gave the Hebrews a double portion of manna on Fridays, so they'd have enough for Saturday, too.
And, remember how Pharaoh declared that the Hebrews would get No more straw, while they must produce no less bricks? Well, wouldn't you know it, 'no more and no less-ness' appears in the Manna story, too: The people would go out collecting manna, and if they collected in excess of an omer per head, well, when they got home there was miraculously no more than an omer in their sacks. And if they tried to collect an omer but fell short – when they got home there was no less than an omer in their sacks.
And one more parallel: What if I asked you… When's the first time in the Bible that people ever got commands related to the idea of Sabbath – what would you answer me? Well, you might say: the Ten Commandments – and, sure, that's where we are commanded to keep Shabbat. But, as we've seen, the Sabbath idea actually predates the Ten Commandments. It pops up as one of the Manna laws: No collecting manna on Saturdays. So you might just then say: The Manna – that's the first instance of a command with reference to the Sabbath idea.
But the truth is, there is a Sabbath command that actually predates both the Ten Commandments and the Manna. To be precise, though, it is an anti-Sabbath command. Because actually, the first time a master ever issues a command around the Sabbath idea, indeed, the first time the Torah ever puts the word 'Sabbath' into the mouth of a human being – is in the story of the bricks and the straw, when Pharaoh, of all people, uses that word.
Pharaoh says to Moses, you ought to leave the slaves alone; hishbatem otam misivlotam, you're causing them to take off time from their work! That word for 'time off' – hishbatem – it's the Sabbath word, being employed as a verb. The Parallels Are There, But What Does It All Mean? So you see, it is all the same. Down to all the little details, the story of the Manna is constructed, as it were, out of language hewn from the story of Pharaoh and the bricks.
And now the question is: What does this all mean? Why would the Torah create all these allusions in the Manna story to an earlier story involving Pharoah? Especially since, at face value, the stories seem so very far removed from one another? I mean, the story about God giving Manna to us in the wilderness, that's a nice, fuzzy, warm story; a story about God taking care of us when we were so vulnerable. Why "ruin" such a special story by overlaying it with these memories of a downright wretched story – the brutal callousness of Pharaoh in demanding ever more bricks from his exhausted slaves?
Redemption But maybe in that very question lies the answer. Maybe the reason the Manna story, this warm and fuzzy story, contains all these parallels to the 'Pharaoh-and-the-bricks episode' is precisely because that bricks episode was so downright traumatic. Maybe, at some level, our experience with the manna was meant precisely as a means of redeeming, in some way, the trauma we experienced with the bricks. To see what I'm driving at here, let's talk about that trauma; try and zero in on exactly what it was.
Taking Egypt out of the SlavesThe Trauma If you think about it, the story involving Pharaoh and the bricks – it is not just a footnote to the slavery experience; somehow, it defines the slavery experience. In the entire Book of Exodus, it is the only real portrait we ever get of what life in Egyptian slavery was actually like.
Sure, we are told that the Israelites experienced avodat perach, backbreaking work in the fields, but that phrase is just an abstraction; we don't get to actually understand what it means, viscerally, until we encounter the story of Pharaoh and the bricks -- a narrative that draws a portrait for us, in vivid and brutal detail, of what slavery under Pharaoh's hand was really like. Let's examine exactly what the Torah portrays to us about Pharaoh's brutality here.
On one level, he physically abused the Hebrews: He doubled their workload, and then had them beaten when they could not meet the new quotas. But he also abused us psychologically. Because it's one thing to deny a request for time off – but it is another thing to do that the way Pharaoh did it. He dismissively accuses Moses of bad faith, and accuses the slaves of being lazy:
נִרְפִּ֣ים הֵ֔ם עַל־כֵּ֗ן הֵ֤ם צֹֽעֲקִים֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר נֵלְכָ֖ה נִזְבְּחָ֥ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
They're lazy, that's why they're screaming, saying, let's go serve our God. And, the psychological abuse ratchets up a level when representatives of the Hebrews come to the king and file a polite and rational complaint:
תֶּ֗בֶן אֵ֤ין נִתָּן֙ לַעֲבָדֶ֔יךָ וּלְבֵנִ֛ים אֹמְרִ֥ים לָ֖נוּ עֲשׂ֑וּ וְהִנֵּ֧ה עֲבָדֶ֛יךָ מֻכִּ֖ים וְחָטָ֥את עַמֶּֽךָ
Look, you're not giving us straw, and you're telling us to make bricks, your nation is sinning by telling us to do this this way. And what does Pharaoh say in response?
וַיֹּ֛אמֶר נִרְפִּ֥ים אַתֶּ֖ם נִרְפִּ֑ים עַל־כֵּן֙ אַתֶּ֣ם אֹֽמְרִ֔ים נֵלְכָ֖ה נִזְבְּחָ֥ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃
This is exactly the same thing he said before; he just goes back to his talking points about the people being lazy. You know, had Pharaoh denied the request for relief and said something like: Look, I hear you, but I need the bricks – that's one thing. But that's not what he does. Instead, he responds to the slaves' appeal by completely ignoring everything they've said. It's just dehumanizing, like you're an absolute nothing.
You don't even get heard. No Time So, in one sense, Pharaoh dehumanizes his slaves by scorning them, by just not listening to them. But the content of his decree breaks the people down in another way, too: You see, in saying: 'you collect the straw and make the same amount of bricks,' Pharaoh is actually depriving the Israelites of their most precious resource: Time itself. Because think about what Pharaoh is really saying. When he says "you're lazy" because you want time off to worship, what he's really saying is: If you have time to think about serving your God, it means you have too much time on your hands.
You have time to think, to contemplate. But slaves aren't supposed to do that. If you have time to think and contemplate, it means I'm not working you hard enough! You see, from Pharaoh's point of view, all his slaves represent is a line item on his Excel spreadsheet. We're merely tools, a massive, brick-making mechanism. And you try and squeeze as much productivity as you can from your tools. If slaves have extra time on their hands, it means there's some time they could be working that they're not. Which means I could be getting more bricks out of them and I'm not. The machine should produce at maximum output! Sure, you have to fuel the machine, so you throw food its way: As much bread as your slaves can swallow, because hey, the more calories you shovel into them, the more bricks they spit out.
You just shove calories their way so that construction in Egypt continues apace; so that pyramids, tombs and palaces get built on schedule. You know, it's kind of sad: In the desert, the Israelites will remember the bread that they were fed in Egypt.
They will say to Moses:
מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְהוָה֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאָכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע
They have fond memories of the warm smell of the Egyptian bread; how they anticipated eating it; how it satiated them. But the evil thing is: That bread was deceptive; it was cruelly seductive. It was bread for bricks, relentlessly: As many bricks as you could humanly make, and if you died from exhaustion, well there was always another slave who could replace you! And the Israelites admit as much, even in their complaint to Moses, when they say: If only we could die in Egypt while eating that bread we remember…
They remember that the bread was a death trap, an entrance ticket into the grueling sweatshop where you shoveled the bricks into the furnaces until you dropped. But the bread… at least it was plentiful. At least it was delicious. We remember its enticing smell, the bread that we would eat from and die… Think about the associations you and I have with warm, fresh bread. What does it feel like to you, when you walk into the kitchen and you smell freshly baked bread? You feel all warm inside.
You remember your childhood. You remember how you were nourished with this wonderful food your parents made for you. you remember being cared for. And it is in this, that the fresh-baked bread in Egypt lied to us: The smell and taste of the bread said you were being taken care of. But the reality is: You were being beaten down. You were being fed calories so you could be worked to death. Social Darwinism Pharaoh's decree broke us down in one more way, too: Because, look… imagine you were there.
What actually happens out there in the fields when Pharaoh decrees that you have to gather your own straw, but still come up with the same daily quota of bricks? Well, if you're particularly strong, you'll find a way to gather the necessary straw, and avoid the taskmaster's lash. You'll hoard that straw, make your own private pile; and you'll fend off anybody who tries to take any from you. And if you're weaker? Well, you're out of luck, my friend. You won't collect all the straw you need; others will get to it first. And you'll come back with fewer bricks and you'll be beaten.
The straw: It becomes a scarce resource. And what happens when there is competition for scarce resources? Competition where the winner is left alone by the taskmaster and the loser gets the lash? What happens… is that conflict breaks out. Brother fights brother for the precious straw. And any sense of basic camaraderie we would have with one another dissolves; The basic social bonds that make society work begin to slip away and dissolve…
Redemption The bottom line is this: In Egypt, we experienced two crucial things – things that people need, things that are supposed to be good for you, but we experienced them poisonously. We experienced bread that was poison, that was just a lure. And we experienced law that was poison too. Yes, law. If you look carefully at Pharaoh's decrees, the Torah characterizes them not just as decrees but as 'laws'.
Listen to what the taskmasters say:
מַדּ֡וּעַ לֹא֩ כִלִּיתֶ֨ם חָקְכֶ֤ם לִלְבֹּן֙
'Why have you not filled your chok today', the number of bricks that by law you needed to provide? That work chok – it's the word the Torah will always use thereafter for law. This moment, under a master named Pharaoh, is the first time in their history that the Israelites have been commanded any chok. But these chukim, these laws, these were ones that beat us down, laws that were calculated to destroy us, to deprive us of our very humanity.
And along with tainted law, Pharaoh also provided us with tainted bread – bread that fed you, but only so you could be broken down, only so you could die shoveling bricks into the white hot kiln. So here was the problem: Given this past of ours, given our troubled and traumatic relationship with both bread and law; given how we once received these tainted gifts by a master who wanted only to break us down – how could we ever learn to receive these things from another master, ever again?
Because God – he was taking us out of Egypt, and leading us, to Sinai, and from there, to the Promised Land. At Sinai, He'd give us law; and in the Promised Land, through its verdant crops, He would give us bread. But how could we possibly accept bread and law from our Master, without somehow being afraid, without somehow shrinking away in terror from the experience? That was the challenge God faced in taking us out of Egypt.
Yes, you can take the slaves out of Egypt – but how do you take Egypt out of the slaves? How do you bring them to Sinai? To the Land of Israel? How do you redeem the trauma this people experienced with bread and law? It was this twin problem that the Manna was designed to address.
Manna as a True GiftListening… The first way God began to redeem the trauma of Egypt had to do with… listening, of all things. Because here's an odd thing about the Manna story. Who were the people who received the Manna?
They were people who, just days ago, crossed the Sea of Reeds as the waters miraculously split. They are the people who witnessed, firsthand, the Ten Plagues. They had experienced God's salvation more vividly than perhaps any generation before or since. So what, then, are we to make of the following statement that Moses makes to the people, after they complain to him, asking for bread?
"By nightfall, you will know that God has taken you out of Egypt… when you see that God has heard your complaints against Him" (Exodus 16:6-7). What is this even supposed to mean? When God listens to your complaints, then you'll know that God is the one who took you out of Egypt? Really? That's how they'll know? I mean – if they don't know by now, – well, they're pretty dense, these people.
What more are they going to know 'because God listened to their complaints'? The Redemption of Being Ignored But, the answer can be found in the parallels between the Manna story and the Pharaoh story. Because back in that story with Pharaoh, the people had experienced lodging complaints against a master, too: Logical, rational complaints – how can you expect us to produce the same number of bricks without giving us any straw? – just as the complaint that they now lodge against God, if you think about it, is logical and rational: How can you expect us to keep going in the desert without any bread?
But, back in Egypt, the master had not listened to those complaints. No matter how logical, no matter how politely phrased, the master had just ignored the people. Now, God would demonstrate to the people something remarkable: He, the one who took them out of Egypt, would be their new Master – a Master in Heaven. And yet, despite God's incomparable power; despite the fact that this new Master dwarfed even Pharaoh in might; despite all this, this Heavenly Master does something remarkable. He listens. He listens to vulnerable, defenseless, former slaves. He hears their complaints. And He pays attention to those complaints, even when they are not phrased so nicely, so politely.
When you experience that – well, that's when you'll know that you're not in Egypt anymore. No Bricks In listening to the people and responding to them, God began to redeem us from the trauma of Pharaoh's bricks. But the Manna, it redeemed us from the evils of Pharaoh in other ways as well. Everything that had been wrong with bread and law in our experience with Pharaoh was being revisited in the desert – but this time, it was being made right. Through the Manna and its laws, God began to heal our relationship with bread, and began to heal our relationship with law. How?
Well, in both narratives, there is a master and those who are subservient to him. In both narratives, the people of Israel will gather things in the fields. And each master will give bread and law to those under him. In all these respects, the stories are the same. But there is one big difference: In the Pharaoh story, there were bricks. In the manna story, there were no bricks at all… You see, in Egypt, Pharaoh wanted an ever increasing supply of bricks, spat out by the mechanized machine of Hebrew slavery – and so he gave us bread and he gave us law, to advance his own, selfish interests.
But God, He has no use for bricks. He didn't demand any from us. That means: When He gave us bread and law, He didn't do it to advance His own interests. He did it...for us. Twin Gifts The manna was a true gift. It wasn't given to us so we could produce something for God. We were His people and we were hungry, and He was going to take care of us. And the laws that God gave us with the Manna – they weren't given for God's benefit either.
The laws were there, to benefit us, too. How? Well, think about Pharaoh's law that he had laid down: 'No more shall I give you straw, but no fewer bricks shall you give me.' As we said before, that law sapped us of our most precious resource, time. Every last waking moment of our lives would be devoted to unending work. But this time, after we leave Egypt, when God gives us His law, the law does the exact reverse: it says that there is one non-negotiable thing that God demands we do, and that is: Rest. Yes, a whole day's worth of rest, every seven days.
There would be no such thing anymore as gathering things in the field incessantly, hour after hour, day after day, without end. All gathering would stop every Saturday. And the name for this day of rest? It would echo forever Pharaoh's 'denial of rest': Pharaoh, had said, hishbatem otam misivlotam. So now, the day of rest would be known as… Shabbat. The resonance with Pharaoh's words would help us remember, each and every time we kept the Sabbath, that God took us out of Egypt, the House of Slaves. This new Master in Heaven, His law would mandate that we would never be a mere tool; we would always have time to breathe, time to just be human. We would thus, always remember God as the giver of Sabbath, the granter of true freedom.
The Abolition of Social Darwinism The new laws, issued by our Heavenly Master, would reverse the evil of Pharaoh's laws in other ways, too. Not only would they absolutely require rest, they would also help establish a society based on brotherhood, rather than a society based on a vicious, winner-take-all, fight over scarce resources. Pharaoh had used the words 'no more straw, no less bricks' – to create fear and insecurity. Will I have enough straw? I had better hoard what I can.
But God uses Pharaoh's "no more, no less" idea to promote the very opposite: security and confidence. Whether you collect more or less, there will still be exactly an omer in your sacks by the time you get home. Don't try and hoard your very own pile of manna; you can't keep any overnight anyway. Each and every day, you can count on Me to provide this gift for you. You can have faith in Me. There will be enough for everyone.
Yes, in each and every way, God's laws would reverse the evil of Pharaoh's decrees. There would be rest rather than incessant work. Security rather than fear. Enough for everybody, instead of not really enough for anyone. And there would be double as much, too: Except this time, it wouldn't be double as much work; it would be double as much of a heavenly gift, each and every Friday, to tide you over for the Sabbath. All these laws that God gave us with the Manna, they were obviously there for our benefit - they were our little training wheels.
They were designed to get us used to something a little counterintuitive: That there could be a Master that didn't have a horse in the race, that wasn't motivated by the promotion of his own interest, but by altruism. This Master, in contrast to Pharaoh, was interested in our welfare – and His laws promoted exactly that. The Manna taught us things that were basic, that would be crucial to our life in the land: to rest; not to hoard; that the weak needed to be provided for also, not just the strong. Moreover, the Manna helped us find the courage to practice these principles by offering us training in another truth, as well: That God's provision for us would never let up...
This helped us see that, even once we entered the land, when the Manna stopped, we were still getting bread from our Divine Source – it's just that He was now using earthly fields, rather than heavenly ones, as His tools to sustain us. In short, the Manna and its laws – they would help us build a society that would nourish us, that we wanted to live in, rather than a society we loathed and feared. Because of all this, the nation of Israel would learn to celebrate its laws. We'd have a holiday,
Shavuot, that helps us joyously do just that. And in preparation for that holiday, we would count the Omer, remembering how, day in and day out, God had provided bread to us, helping us learn to keep the laws that would make our society flourish.