In this week’s parsha, Beshalach, the Israelites begin their journey from Egypt to Israel. There are moments when the Israelites question their exodus and God’s ability to protect them. Although they are liberated, their lives are filled with uncertainty and they still carry some of their slave-like mentality from Egypt. While being chased by Pharoah, the Israelites complain to Moses,“Let us be, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” (14:13). Just after this moment, God splits the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to safely pass to dry land. But, their complaints continued. They later said to Moses and Aaron, “For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (16:3). Rabbi Shai Held comments that in Beshalach, “the Israelites will need to discover, however slowly and painfully, that they have agency, that they can act in ways small and large to determine their own fate.”
Avivah Zornberg explains the Israelites emotional transition from Egyptian slaves to free people. “Fear is born of a way of seeing; a changed way of seeing will change their feeling and thinking.” (Particulars of Rapture, page 209). They need to let go of their fears and passivity. As Rabbi Shai Held continues, “in the midst of a story about divine power, the Torah works to make space for human initiative. Only if the Israelites find the courage to move forward will God save them.”
God answers their complaints about being hungry by providing manna. And, double manna was given by God to the Israelites before Shabbat. God’s providing of manna transformed the Israelites. Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught, “And so [because the manna was coming down daily] the Israelites were compelled to direct their hearts to their Father in heaven [every day].” (Sefer Ha-aggadah, p. 75)
In recognizing God’s protection of them, the Israelites move from fear to courage and action. Rabbi Shai Held explains that, “people are called upon to refuse passivity as a religious posture. In the language of our Sages, “We do not rely on miracles” (BT, Shabbat 32a). Faith sometimes demands a willingness to let go but, even more often, it requires the courage to act.”
Our actions in this world enable us to fulfill our covenant with God. As Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary writes about Beshallach, “This makes covenant, a divine-human partnership for the betterment of God’s world, our world, both necessary and difficult. . . . We exalt God by the quality of our deeds. . . . The need for covenant is clear.”
The recipe I prepared for this week’s parsha–challot–is more “traditional” than my usual dishes. The two challot we enjoy at every Shabbat meal symbolizes the double manna the Israelites received from God before Shabbat during their forty years in the desert. The recipe is from my grandmother’s challot cookbook though I’ve updated it with options to make it vegan and with some whole wheat instead of white flour. “Manna is described in Scripture as ‘bread,’ as ‘honey’ and as ‘oil.’ How are the differing descriptions to be reconciled? Young men tasted it in the taste of bread, old people the taste of honey, and infants the taste of oil (Sefer Ha-gaaddah, p. 75). Indeed, the same ingredients are still used to make it today and we all taste the deliciousness of challot. The simple ingredients are transformed into a holy, sweet food. When God created the world, “God extracted a ‘handful’ of earth from dust and water. He combined and created Man. Similarly, we separate and elevate a handful of dough from the simple ingredients we combine.”
Raisins are added to it because the Israelites were compared to a vine, “Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt (Psalms 80:9). R. Tanhuma bar Abba said, “He plucked them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness, and there they began to thrive; there they received the Torah and their name went forth throughout the world.” (Sefer Ha-aggadah, p. 75).
I get great pleasure in the meditative process of baking challah for Shabbat. As Freda Reider writes, “While you are kneading the dough realize that you are at that moment symbolically connected to your entire ancestral heritage. . . . Consider kneading an act that now links you to the continuous life of a traditional worldwide Jewish community” (The Hallah Book, p. 30).
My updated version of a recipe by Freda Reider, author of The Hallah Book: Recipes, History and Tradition
Also, this recipe is made from scratch–no bread machine involved!
1 1/2 cups water (1 cup boiling, 1/2 cup cold)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey (support a local beekeeper)
2 tsp salt
1 tbsp yeast (I used fresh yeast, but dry also works)
3 eggs: humanely-raised chicken or flax seed (1 tbsp ground flax seed, 3 tbsp water)
5-6 cups flour (instead of all white flour, try 1/2 whole wheat, 1/2 white)
1/2 cup organic raisins (other things I like to add to my challot include: sesame seeds, za’atar, and/or cinnamon)
1. Place the first six ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Allow the yeast to “proof” (which means it should bubble).
2. Using a large wooden spoon, stir the flour into the liquid, one cup at a time. Continue to add flour, mixing and blending, until the dough begins to ball up and leave the sides of the bowl.
3. Gather the dough into a ball and knead for approximately 10 minutes. If it becomes sticky, sprinkle flour on your hands.
4. There is not enough flour used in this recipe for hafrashat challah (taking challah). The taking of challah is symbolic of the separated challah portion given to the Kohanim (priests) during the Temple period. If you are using more flour, here are the requirements for taking out a portion and the bracha (prayer) to say.
5. Gather the challah into a smooth, round ball. Pick it up and drizzle a bit of olive oil along the sides and bottom of the bowl to prevent the dough from sticking. Then put dough back into the bowl. Place a cover over the bowl. Let the dough rise in a warm place (I wrap towels around the bowl sometimes) and don’t move it. Let the dough rise to double in size (I left mine overnight and found it pouring out of the bowl onto the counter in the morning).
6. Knead the dough a second time for a few minutes and let rise again.
7. Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a flour covered counter or board. Now is the time to fold in raisins. Tip: I try to keep the raisins on the inside of the challah so that they aren’t exposed and don’t burn.
8. Braid or shape your challah–click here for ideas.
9. Preheat over to 350 degrees.
10. Place challot on cookie sheets, baking tins or tinfoil, moistened with olive oil. If you use eggs, then you can brush an egg wash on the dough. If you are adding seeds on top, add them now, too. Option here to let it rise again for a third time. Then, bake for approximately 45 minutes until lightly brown and firm on the outside.
11. Remove from oven and let cool on an elevated rack.