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by Rabbi Yaakov Menken

"And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert..." [Bamidbar 1:1]

The Net is used by many interesting people, and we receive some fascinating mail. I've received correspondence recently from Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, and of course Argentina, where is now offering excellent Divrei Torah in Spanish (one of our more frequent requests is for Spanish-language material). One of the most unusual bits of mail came several years ago at about this time, when a visitor to our Web site offered to present evidence that the Manna the Hebrews found in the desert was actually the psilocybin mushroom, familiar to those who passed through the culture of the 1960s (and remember the experience) for its hallucinogenic properties. In other words, it was the writer's opinion that the Torah was "inspired by botanically induced visions," and Judaism was "derived from the mushroom experience."

The above writer is, of course, hardly alone in the design of such fantasies. During Passover, a liberal Rabbi in California used his sermon to declare that history "proves" the Exodus never happened. He was rightly criticized for this by a fellow member of the same movement, who "wonder[ed] at a Rabbi's disrupting the social order of Los Angeles Judaism during Passover on the basis of such a feeble grasp of how history and archeology conduct their inquiry." The Egyptians were not in the business of publicizing their failures. According to the Torah and Midrash, the Israelites relied upon miracles for their food, and their clothing never wore out -- thus leaving practically no evidence of their passage through the Sinai Desert. To claim that the lack of evidence proves it never happened is little more than a leap of faith (pardon the expression).

One must wonder: why would a person calling himself a Rabbi want to believe there never was an Exodus? What is it that motivates the distortion of Torah into a mushroom-inspired hallucination? It is this same Manna that helps answer the question.

The story of Israel in the Sinai Desert chronicles the development of a profound relationship between G-d and His people. We were slaves in Egypt. Had he not taken us out, proclaims the Haggadah, we would still be a nation of slaves -- assuming, of course, that anything was left of us at all. We had nothing, and He gave us everything.

The Midrash Rabba [Bamidbar 2] relates that the Nation of Israel complained to Moshe while they traveled through Sinai, saying "why have you brought us up from Egypt, to die in the desert? [Bamidbar 21:5]" HaShem answered them, by saying "have I indeed made it like a desert for Israel? If a King of flesh and blood were to decide to go out to the desert, would it be normal for him to find tranquility there like he finds when he is sheltered in his palace, or food and drink [in similar abundance]? Yet you were slaves in Egypt, and I took you out from there and caused you to flourish..."

One part of this was, of course, the Manna: "And He fed you the Man, that which you never knew, nor did your fathers know, in order to inform you that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that comes out of the mouth of HaShem does man live." [Deut. 8:3] G-d took care of us, not with natural events which could have been misinterpreted, but with direct and open miracles, evidence of His special relationship with the Jewish people. In this week's reading, He counts his people like a shepherd counting his precious flock.

Such a close relationship, built upon such kindness, obviously inspires both gratitude and a sense of obligation on our part. The feelings of both awe and responsibility are unavoidable -- unless, of course, one insists that the events never happened. Our heritage tells us that we have duties, when society encourages us to feel no responsibility and to follow our every desire. The account of several million eyewitnesses is therefore discounted in favor of mushroom theories or simple denial.

For those who believe that the events did happen, we find in them the inspiring and comforting thought that it is specifically when we are in the desert -- exposed, lacking resources, needing His assistance -- that He is closest. When Israel is under attack, and the nations of the world gather to turn truth on its head and declare Israel the "aggressor" and the modern manifestation of hundred-year-old Jewish habitation ("settlements" in Neve Yaakov, Gush Emunim and Hebron) "violence" -- He is nearby.

Many of us reside in a different type of desert -- what we believe to be a Jewish desert, lacking Jewish life and Jewish opportunities. Yet the Holy One, Blessed be He, provides even for those living in this "desert," just as He did for the Sinai generation. There is no desert, for as surely as He can bring Manna to Israel in the desert, all the more so can He bring Torah to Jews around the world. What we are seeing here is simply a miracle of a different kind, including the use of high tech for a Higher Cause.

In the coming days we will celebrate Shavuous, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. These are especially auspicious days for learning and acquiring Torah -- even in the desert. May we merit to feel His closeness, and to see His Presence on earth again, speedily in our days!

A Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken



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