The Test of the 'Manna'

  • Rav Zvi Shimon






By Rav Zvi Shimon


The Test of the 'Manna'



            After the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the joyous song of praise sung by Moses and the people of Israel in response to their salvation, the nation prepares to march forward to receive the Torah and to enter the promised land of milk and honey.  The people of Israel are at a spiritual high, filled with faith "in the Lord and His servant Moses" (14:31).  However, as evidenced by the narratives following the awesome salvation, this faith and spiritual high does not last very long.  The people of Israel set out into the wilderness and must now contend with the difficulties of life in the desert.


            The Torah relates three similar episodes following the song at the sea.  The first episode which occurs at Mara (15:24) and the third which takes place at Refidim (17:2) deal with the people's thirst for water.  The middle episode set in the wilderness of Sin deals with their hunger for food (16:3).  In all three episodes the people grumbled against Moses and in the second and third they even recall the preferable conditions which they "enjoyed" as slaves in Egypt:


"If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death." (16:3).


and again


"Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"(17:3)


            In all three cases the solution to the people's qualms is quick in coming.  God reveals no anger or disappointment at the people's reaction but rather immediately complies with their requests.  In Mara, God tells Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water thereby miraculously sweetening the bitter waters (15:25).  In Elim, God begins providing them with the manna, the bread which they eat in the day, and with quail to eat in the evening (16:13).  In the wilderness of Sin, God tells Moses to strike a rock from which issues forth water for the people to drink (17:6).


            The absence of a reprimand from God implies that the people's complaints were justified.  If that is the case, then the question arises: Why did God not provide for the people's needs even before their complaints?  Why did he make them march in the blazing desert until overcome by thirst and hunger?  The fact that the needs of the people were met almost immediately upon their being articulated proves that there was obviously no difficulty in providing a solution.  What, then, is the reason for the withholding of these solutions?  Why did God not provide a constant supply of water from the very beginning of the travels in the desert?


            One possible explanation is that had God indeed provided a constant supply of water from the very beginning then the people would never truly appreciate all that God was doing for them.  Only after experiencing the absence of something can one truly appreciate its worth.  After experiencing thirst and hunger the people can come to an appreciation of God's kindness and munificence.


            An analysis of God's response to the complaints of the people of Israel in the narrative of the manna, the divine bread, raises another possibility:


"In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.  The Israelites said to them, 'If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.'

And the Lord said to Moses, 'I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day's portion - that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not.  But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day.'" (Exodus 16:2-5)


            God states that he will rain down bread each day in order to TEST them, to see whether they will follow "TOROTAI" (translated "My instructions").  The purpose of God's provision of the manna is to test the people of Israel.  What is the test of the manna?


            Our Sages offer the following explanation:


The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel:...'I gave you the Torah for you to occupy yourselves therewith which case I will satisfy you daily with bread from heaven as it says "and the people shall go out and gather each day that day's portion - that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not" (Shemot Rabba 25:9).


            The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) elaborates: "I will test them to see whether they will preoccupy themselves with the study of the Torah.  Since I provide them with ready food without [their investing] any toil or effort, they should therefore constantly deal with the study of Torah."


            This 'midrashic'-homiletical explanation interprets the word "torotai" (translated "My instructions") not, as intimated by the English translation, in relation to certain specific instructions but rather to the Torah as a whole, to all the commandments given by God.  The provision of the manna will create much "free" time.  The Israelites will no longer have to spend hours in order to put bread on the table.  God will provide them with ready-made meals.  The test will be how the people will take advantage of their "free" time.  Will they deteriorate into a hedonistic frivolous lifestyle?  Or will they take advantage of this golden opportunity in order to grow spiritually in the service of God, in the understanding of Torah.


            This test is not unique to the generation of the desert.  Modern technology has provided similar, albeit scaled down, opportunities.  Many countries have a five-day work week (recently even Israel!) allowing for much more free time.  To what ends is this time used?  A marvelous example of a positive usage of increased free time is the initiative of numerous communities in Israel of establishing Friday 'Beit Midrash' Torah programs (Friday and not Sunday is the additional off day in Israel).  Increased affluence is put to use for spiritual growth.


            Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), by contrast, interprets the word 'torotai' as referring not to Torah as a whole but rather to specific instructions related to the manna:


"That I may thus test them" (16:4) - "Whether they will keep the commandments which are associated with it [the manna], i.e., that they should not leave over of it [for the following day] and that they should not go out on the Sabbath to gather it."


            The test of the manna relates to the laws governing its collection.  The verse immediately following God's announcement of his provision of the manna states the prohibition of the collection of the manna on the Sabbath: "But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day" (verse 5).  Later, Moses also forbids the leaving over of the manna for the following day: "Let no one leave any of it [the manna] over until morning" (16:19).  God will test the people's devotion and their adherence to His commandments through the laws related to the manna.  The manna is thus a tool for testing the people's loyalty to God.  Will they adhere to the laws of the manna or will they enjoy the benevolence of God while ignoring his commandments?


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) rejects Rashi's interpretation claiming it is incorrect without explaining why.  What is problematic about Rashi's interpretation?


            The difficulty which the Ramban has with Rashi's interpretation is probably the order of the verses.  The statement by God: "that I may thus test them to see whether they will follow My instructions or not" (verse 4) appears before the specification of the rules relating to the collection of the manna.  It would seem from the above verse that not the rules governing the manna but rather the manna itself was the test.  After rejecting Rashi the Ramban goes on to give his own interpretation:


"But this [Rashi's interpretation] is not correct.  Rather, the intent [of the trial mentioned here] is as He said, 'Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not; that He might afflict thee, and that He might try thee, to do thee good at thy latter end" (Deuteronomy 8:16).  [The manna itself] was a trial to them, since they had no food in the wilderness and were without recourse to any sustenance except the manna, which they knew not from before and had never heard of from their fathers.  Each day's quantity came down on its day, and they were eagerly desirous for it.  Yet with all this, they hearkened to walk after God to a place of no food.  And so indeed He said to them again, 'And thou shalt remember all the way in which the Eternal thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to try thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no' (ibid., verse 2).  He could have led them by way of 'the cities that were round about them.'  Instead, He led them 'through the wilderness wherein were serpents, fiery serpents, and scorpions' (Deuteronomy 8:15), and each day's quantity of food would come to them only from heaven in order to try them..."


            The Ramban cites a verse from Deuteronomy which was said at the end of the forty-year sojourn in the desert and which specifically relates to the giving of the manna.  The manna was an unknown form of nutrition which the Israelites ate for forty years straight, day in day out.  The manna is actually symbolic of the whole nature of desert existence.  The Israelites traveled in areas which had minimal vegetation, "a place of no food."  God could have led them through more sympathetic terrain but He purposefully did not do so in order to "AFFLICT" them.  Living on manna was, according to the Ramban, an existence on the utter bare necessities.  This bare bone existence in a land of serpents and scorpions is a test for the people of Israel to see whether they will follow God irrespective of the difficulties which this entails.  Will they tolerate the plain unadorned life in the desert?  Will they be satisfied with the manna and forego luxuries?  Is their devotion to God dependent on material enjoyment or is it completely free of any material limitations?  The manna is thus a test of whole-hearted commitment.  The prophet Jeremia, indeed, states that the people of Israel's willingness to follow God into the desert is a great merit: "Zakharti lakh chesed ne'urayikh' - "I accounted to your favor the devotion of your [Israel's] youth, your love as a bride - How you followed Me in the wilderness in a LAND NOT SOWN" (Jeremia 2:2).


            The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) and the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) offer a different explanation of the test of the manna.  It is not, as the midrash explains, a test to see whether the Israelites will use their free time for Torah study.  Nor is it, as Rashi suggests, related to the keeping of the commandments governing the collection of the manna or as the Ramban interprets, a test to see whether the Israelites will be satisfied with the manna and the simple and unadorned life in the desert.  The test of the manna, according to the Rashbam and the Ibn Ezra, stems from the manner in which the manna was provided: "and the people shall go out and gather each day that day's portion that I may thus test them" (16:4).  Rashi comments on this verse:


"What is needed for a day's eating they shall gather on that day, and not today for what is needed tomorrow."


            Moses indeed later explicitly commands them: "Let no one leave any of it [the manna] till morning" (16:19).  The people received their daily ration of the manna but they could never stock it for future supply.  Every day they had to go collect the manna of that day.  Our sages comment on this aspect of the giving of the manna:


"EACH DAY THAT DAY'S PORTION" - "Rabbi Shimon says: 'because of God's love for the people of Israel He provides them each day with that day's portion.  A parable - to what is this similar?  To a king of flesh and blood who was angry at his son and said he [his son] would no longer see him but would receive his full year's sustenance once at the beginning of the year.  While his son was being sustained that year he agonized [over not being able to see his father] wishing to see his father even at the cost of not being sustained by him at all.  Once his father had forgiven him he said: 'let him [his son] come and receive his portion daily' ... so too the people of Israel, because of God's love for them, He gives them their sustenance daily so that they will constantly anticipate and enjoy His presence each day" (Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, 'Tannaitic halakhic midrash' of the school of Rabbi Akiva on the book of Exodus).


            According to this interpretation the manner of the distribution of the manna was desirable and beneficial.  It allowed for a closer and more continuous connection to God.  Each day in the desert, the Israelites waited for God's provision of the manna and through the manna were afforded an opportunity to sense God's kindness and love for them.


            The Rashbam and the Ibn Ezra offer an opposite explanation.  They suggest that this specific aspect of the manna, its daily distribution, is not a gift but a difficult test.  While in the desert the people of Israel never have the security of reserve supplies of food, the manna makes them totally dependent on God.  Their eyes are constantly looking to the sky in anticipation of God's kindness.  Rabbi Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yosef Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12th century) comments on the physical source of the manna, its raining down from the sky.  Why did the manna originate from the sky?


"From the sky - a place which is unreachable so that they would be incapable of acquiring the manna themselves but would always be looking upward towards Me."


            The manna tests the people's willingness to be totally dependent on God.  Will the people have faith in God's capacity to provide for their needs?  Will they be willing to lead such an existence devoid of independent security?  Will they accept a lifestyle in which they depend completely on God's kindness to survive?  An articulation of this approach can be found in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael (Tannaitic halakhic midrash on Exodus):


"From the narrative of the manna Rabbi Elazar Ha-moda'i inferred: "Whoever has what to eat today but asks what shall I eat tomorrow lacks faith as it is written: "that I may thus test them to see whether they will follow My instructions or not" (Mekhilta Beshalach).


            God did not provide a constant supply of nutrition and water from the very beginning of the travels in the desert in order to transform the people's dependence on their past Egyptian masters to dependence on God.  God wished to foster among the people the realization of man's dependence on Him.  This is a basic ingredient of a spiritual life.  Man, gifted with awesome talents which allow him to harness nature to his advantage, must strive to maximize his potential.  However, with all his greatness he is still in need of God's kindness.  This was the test of the manna.  Those who lacked faith in God were constantly apprehensive of tomorrow and thus attempted to stock up on the manna disobeying Moses' prohibition of keeping the manna for the following day.  Those who had full faith in God had no problem with receiving daily rations of food.  Their unwavering faith allowed them to overcome the uncertainties of tomorrow and approach the future with confidence and security.  The faithful not only passed the test of the manna, they indeed viewed its daily distribution as preferable, as a gift from God which allowed for a daily recognition and experience of God's benevolence.  Their constant dependence on God for nutrition, whether it be the manna, quail or water was not a burden or liability.  It was an opportunity for strengthening their awareness and connection to God.