Choice: do we have it or not? A famous midrash – for next week’s Torah reading – tells about G-d holding the mountain over the People’s heads saying, ‘accept my Torah or right here will be your graveside’. It seems like it can’t get any more explicit than that; we have no choice at all, period, end of sentence.
And that’s true. In some cases. Even the most open-minded parent doesn’t stand around with their toddler in front of the car, giving the little one “choices” regarding where s/he’d like to sit, on the hood, in the trunk or perhaps on the roof? It’s usually “get in, buckle up, let’s go”. This often seems to be the mode in the religious world as “Someone” hands out a seemingly precise to-do list. Then again, too many restriction, pressure and coercion breed rejection and rebellion. If anyone, Moses learned it early on, exemplified this week by the story of the manna.
The manna was to rain down daily in just the right amount (Exodus 16:11-35). First Moses gave a general instruction: “gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat”…. And -“The Israelite did so”. The Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till morning” (16:19), and lo and behold, “they paid no attention to Moses” (16:20). They were hoping to come out ahead and instead, had an “experiential learning session”, as the text says: “and it became infested with maggots and stank”. So they learned, and following “they gathered it every morning, each as much as he needed to eat” – and the Torah adds a reason for us, which they learned through experience: “for when the sun grew hot, it would melt” (16:21).
Then came Shabbat. No commandments have yet been given regarding Shabbat. Nevertheless, they must have known that this was a special day, because – with no instructions (!), “on the sixth day, they gathered double the amount of food”. How did they know? Who told them? No one. This reflects an idea, that if you just let the people be and allow them to do what’s right – not always! But the Torah trusts that it’s not impossible that they will. In the olden times, it was possible, when in doubt, to learn halacha – Jewish law – from going and seeing what people did in actuality. Note that the elders didn’t like the fact that the Children of Israel assumed authority in “halacha” (16:22), and yet Moses said: “This is what Hashem means: tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Shabbat….” And according to tradition, taught them cooking and baking laws for Shabbat, and the food was fine. But then, he said, “eat it today…. You will not find it today on the plain…”. As soon as he said, ‘you will not find it’, some people went out to look…. Why are we like that?? But then, maybe now, when they can’t find new food, they are open to hear G-d’s teaching them about Shabbat and now – they know, not only because they were taught, admonished, commanded, threatened, and therefore, “the people remained inactive on the seventh day” (16:30), and thus, Shabbat came into the community.
This parasha usually comes near Tu Bishvat, this year to be celebrated this coming Monday, and surprise, coincidentally, there’s a tree in this reading (15:25:
וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל־ה’ וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יְהוָה֙ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם…
So he cried out to the Hashem, and Hashem showed him a piece of wood / tree; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet…
The Children of Israel arrived at a place where they finally chanced on water after three days walking, but, the water is bitter. Moshe could have said, ‘so it’s bitter, what can I do?! Bitter water is good for you; it builds character! be thankful for Hashem’s gifts’… and on and on. But instead, Hashem instructs him to throw a tree (or piece of wood, for ease of translation) which makes the bitter water – sweet.
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) says that the tree is a pele, a miracle. The midrash tries to guess – was it an olive tree? Pomegranate? Willow? Fig? Ramban (1194-1270) and others emphasize that the tree was bitter, and that it was something bitter which (homeopathically :)) made bitter water – sweet!! Beyond trying to figure out which tree and analyze the miraculous (and homeopathic :)) nature of the act, we learn that it’s ok to not settle on “bitter”, but ask for sweet.