Thursday, January 13, 2011

Faith, Food, Flood & Money (Beshalach)

The following is written against the background of the tragic loss of life in the Queensland floods this week. In addition to the dead and missing is a massive loss of property, homes and crops affecting tens of thousands. Of course, we must all do what we can to help. In addition, the financial impact of the floods raises broader questions about faith as it related to money. 

Worrying about money and the all consuming pursuit of a livelihood often takes up so much head-space, there is very little capacity for empathy or altruism. Relax! “It is false for you, early risers, delayers of lying down, who eat the bread of sorrows, for indeed He will give those he loves sleep[1]”. Despite the obvious need for a balanced approach, like so many people, I find this very hard in practice. Faith in God’s providing for us seems an obvious solution. How do we reconcile faith with our experiences? 

Preoccupation with Providing 
The juxtaposition of two parts of the Exodus story, the splitting the sea and worry about food relates to the teaching that A man’s sustenance is as difficult as the dividing of the Reed Sea[2].

Those of us who have never worried about our next meal, or spared the impact of natural disaster can barely imagine this. With a secure job, food in the fridge and credit cards if not cash, we can afford to think about others’ needs. Still, financial insecurity can dull our sensitivity to the needs of others, or capacity to be inspired. The Jews, having just experienced the miracle of the splitting of the sea faced a situation where they had no food. They cried out, “Oh, who could have given us (the better option of) dying by the hand of God in the land of Egypt as we sat on the pots of meat, when we ate bread that filled us, as you have taken us out to this desert to have this whole congregation die in hunger![3]”.

Real or supposed danger of hunger, makes all principals shaky, silences all better resolution and as long as a man is not relieved…from the crushing burden of the worry about his daily bread there is not place left for a complete realisation of the divine Torah[4]. It would seem that If we are to play any positive role we need to rise above this fear. 

Manna a lesson in Trust
To prepare Jews for a more trusting approach they are given the Manna, miracle food that falls from heaven, that will be “collected, day by day, to test them whether they will go by my Torah or not”[5]. The Manna will only be provided for one day at a time, can we relax after eating the last bit of food we have relying that God will provide for us tomorrow? Moses, may have added an extra rule to reinforce the lesson, “nothing can be left from one day to the next![6] Instead, they must trust in God that tomorrow Manna will come down if any is left it should  be thrown out of the tent[7]. 

The lesson is meant to carry on to future generations. It is expressed as a super-natural idea that anyone who fulfils the Torah, God will prepare his livelihood without bother just like those who ate the Manna based on the fact that one verse in the Torah about the Manna contains every letter in the Hebrew Alphabet[8]. More practically, we are told, Whoever has food for today and worries about tomorrow is considered one of those will little faith[9]”.

Be Prepared
Yet, the Queenslanders who did “worry about tomorrow” are probably better off than those who did not.  I suggest that there is a difference between worrying and planning or preparing for risk. In fact, we are taught that being prepared for the future is far better than those to whom could be applied the verse “you will not believe in your life[10]”, this is the one who own no fields and buys their bread from the baker, from Friday to Friday[11].  We are taught that “we do not rely on miracles[12].  Rabbi Yehoshua said a person should learn two laws in the morning, two in the evening and occupy himself with his work the who day, (if he does this) he is considered as if he fulfilled the entire Torah[13]

To prepare, is to play one's part in the natural order that God created and through which God works. To worry is to express a lack of confidence in the benevolence of God.

Acceptance After/Optimism before
Paradoxically, when we suffer or catastrophe strikes we say “whatever God does is for the best”, or “It is not in our hands to grasp the (reason) for the suffering of the righteous or the  tranquilly of the wicked[14] yet when we look to the future we are meant to do so with confidence and trust in God.  It life was supposed to make sense, this would be a major problem. Yet, we give our trust and faith to people we love.  This is why when teenagers accused their parents with “you don't trust me”, the parents feel defensive. Trust is not just earned, it is given as a gift, like a compliment or an affirmation, a suspension of disbelief.

Not only is worrying seen as a lack of faith, money itself is seen negatively. “How do we know that money (כֶּסֶף Kesef) is synonymous with shame? Because the word in Aramaic for Shame is (Kisufa כִּסוּפָא ) [15] and “Why is it called a coin (Matbeahמַטְבֵּעַ )? Because one sinks (טוֹבֵע To-Vay-Ah) in it”[16]. Regardless of the pitfall of money the reality of the place of money in our world is recognised in our tradition. “A poor man is considered as if he were dead[17]”.  Charity, giving away our money is also seen as having the power to redeem us.   

The devastation in Queensland reminds us of the natural forces that can sweep away our possessions in moments, we need to respond with compassion for the victims and awe at the mystery and tragedy of God ways. Our capacity to empathise  is greater if we can trust God that we will be ok and are not worried about our own vulnerability.

Money can destroy us, but it can redeem us. We are simultaneously supposed to work as if it mattered, and sleep as if it won't, because in the end it does and it doesn't. 

May the Almighty and the Merciful watch over the souls of those who lost their lives, heal and help those who suffered loss and grant success to the efforts of the rescuers and carers.

[1] Psalm 127:2
[2] Talmud, Pesachim 118a, discussed by
[3] Exodus 16:3, It’s hard to imagine that the Egyptians were so generous with their slaves menu. This particular complaint may have been from the Jewish overseers of the slaves (Ohr Hachayim )
[4] Samson Raphael Hirsch, on Exodus 16:2
[5] Exodus 16:4
[6] Ohr Hachyim on Exodus 16:19
[7] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 16:19
[8] Baal Haturim 16:16, similar to Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai, in Mechilta.
[9] Rabbi Elazar Hamodaii in the Mechilta
[10] Deuteronomy 28:66
[11] Talmud, Menachot 103b, see Rashi, quoted in Aryeh Kaplan (1992), Handbook of Jewish Thought Volume 2, p.303, Moznaim Publishing, New York
[12] Talmud Pesachim 64b, with slight variation Zohar 1 111 & 112.
[13] Mechilta
[14] Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, )
[15] Bamidbar Rabba 14:22
[16] R, Avraham of Slonim, quoted in Rosmarin, R. (2000) Mamma Used to Say – Pearls of Wisdom From the World of Yiddish, p. 199. Felheim Publishers New York 
[17] Talmud Nedarim 7b

1 comment:

  1. Despite earning regular money at present, I spent the vast majority of my working life as a storyteller, with unpredictable and limited monies coming in. With this I raised three children on my own. And although deeply grateful to be more stable nowadays, there is a loss. No longer do I sometimes have my back to the wall and watch Divine Providence in action. I don't have the opportunity I once had, to wonder how I will manage this week, and be graced with sudden, unexpected relief - and be reminded that something is at work here, that is bigger than you and me.