When I was growing up, my father would occasionally make a recipe for Shabbat Shira called “Pharaoh’s Wheel.” A traditional Italian-Jewish recipe, it’s a pasta dish, baked in a circular pan to resemble a wheel, and filled with nuts, sweet raisins, and meat. It’s a little over the top, this dish overrun with delicacies, and not something you could eat everyday. Unlike the flat, plain matzah of Passover, the lekhem oni (bread of affliction) of slaves, Pharaoh’s Wheel is a dish to be tasted in freedom.
Pharaoh’s Wheel calls to mind the highlight of this week’s parashah, the joyous crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Israelites. But once on dry land, clean water and fresh food become major concerns for the Israelites. They cry out to Moses and Aaron: “If only we had died by the hand of God in Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:3) The culinary memories of the Israelites seem at odds with what the diet of slaves must have been. The harsh conditions of the desert create false memories, a homesickness or desire for a past that never existed, and without their basic needs met, the Israelites’ faith in God waivers.
How could conditions deteriorate so soon after the miracle of the crossing of the Sea, when Israelites’ faith never seemed stronger: “And when Israel saw the wondrous power which God had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared God; they had faith in God.” (14:31) A midrash explains that, in fact, the people left Egypt in hopes of experiencing God in such a tremendous way. Miriam and the other women brought timbrels with them as they fled Egypt because they had faith that God would perform miracles for them and give them cause to celebrate.
Once in the desert, it was not so obvious that God was in their midst. Daily, the Israelites saw not miracles, but God’s human emissary, Moses. When confronted with humanity, rather than divinity, the faith of Israelites withered and they complained. As former slaves, conditioned to disappointment and hardship, they could not imagine God outside of the big moments.
But Pharoah’s Wheel is rich enough to only be eaten once a year and seas do not part every day. The Israelites needed tangible and constant reminders of God’s presence, ones that answered their instinctual concerns about basic needs. God responds to the crisis of food with a miracle that is not large and wondrous but tangible in the everyday world of the wanderings in the wilderness: manna. Manna is God’s bread of freedom, renewed each day when the sun rises: “It was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafer in honey.” (16:31) I remember hearing as a child the idea that it tasted to each person exactly like the food they most wanted, a magic that wasn’t showy to the world, but internal, unique to each Israelite.
Manna is also the bread of trust. Each Israelite can only gather as much mana as needed for each day, with two portions on Shabbat. (16:29) To gather more would show a lack of faith that God would not abandon them in the desert, and would never allow them to starve.
This year, I’m serving Pharoah’s Wheel to celebrate both Shabbat Shira and my younger daughter’s third birthday. But I hope that as she grows, she learns the lesson learned by the Israelites over 40 years of wandering: that God is always present, even in miracles as quiet as our everyday food.