Responding to the complaints of the Israelites concerning lack of food, Hashem introduces the miraculous fare that will sustain the nation during their travels:“Hineni Mamtir Lachem Lechem Min HaShamayim VeYatza HaAm VeLaketu Devar Yom BeYomo Lema’an Anasenu HaYeileich BeTorati Im Lo,”“Behold! I will rain down for you food from heaven; and the people will go out and collect each day’s portion on its day, that I may test them – will they follow My teaching or not?”(Shemot 16:4).
This refrain of the people’s test is repeated twice in the book of Devarim (8:2-3 and 8:16) as Moshe Rabbeinu, recalling the people’s journey in the wilderness, states:
“And you shall remember the entire road upon which Hashem led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart – will you obey His commandments or not? And He afflicted you and let you hunger and He fed you the manna…in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live…. [The God] Who fed you manna in the wilderness…in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to do good for you in the end.”
Why does Hashem associate the miracle of the Man with testing and affliction? As the Abarbanel (to Shemot 16:4) asks, “What was the nature of the test administered by God through the bestowal of daily sustenance? …This was a kindness, not a test!”
Four Classic Approaches
Rashi (to Shemot 16:4) argues that the test does not lie within the Man itself. Rather, he contends, the trial actually emerges from an ancillary source. Hashem grants miraculous sustenance to our people and simultaneously tests them by determining “whether they will observe the commandments associated [with that sustenance].” These commandments included the instruction to collect each day only the amount of manna necessary for that day, the prohibition of collection on the Shabbat, and the directive to collect a double portion on Friday in order to properly prepare for Shabbat.
Many other Rishonim, however, do not accept Rashi’s solution to the mysterious “test” of the manna. The Ramban (ad loc.), for example, emphatically declares, “But this [Rashi’s explanation] is not correct…. (The Man itself) was a trial to them.”
While the text supports the position that the manna itself was a trial, the question remains: exactly what was the test embodied in this miraculous food?
The Rishonim offer, with subtle variations, three global approaches. Each of these approaches carries overarching lessons that move well beyond the specific phenomenon of the Man.
1. Hashem tested and developed the faith of the Israelites by depriving them of the usual forms of sustenance and survival. The Ramban, among others, champions this position both in his commentary to Parashat BeShalach and in Sefer Devarim (8:2):
“[Hashem] could easily have led them through the surrounding cities. He led them, instead, through a wilderness of snakes, fiery serpents and scorpions, where the only bread fell from the heaven each day.”
“This was a serious trial for them: to have no other option, to enter a great wilderness…to have no sustenance other than the manna which fell on a daily basis and which melted when the sun waxed hot…. Nevertheless, they did all this in obedience to God’s command…. From this [God] would know that they would obey His commandments forever.”
With this approach, the Ramban remains true to his general position (see Ramban to BeReishit 22:1) concerning divine tests: God tests man to actualize man’s inherent potential.
Through the trial of the Man, by severely rationing and circumscribing the sustenance of the Israelites, God actualizes their internal potential for faith. This faith, once realized, will sustain them not only in the wilderness but through their turbulent journey across the face of history.
2. By providing us with the Man, Hashem confronts our fledgling nation with theplethorachallenges that emerge with a life of ease. Far from a test of deprivation, the Man actually constitutes a Nisayon HaOsher, a trial of wealth and plenty.
The Or HaChayim (to Shemot 16:4) notes, for example, that the Man provides the Israelites with the unfamiliar phenomenon of leisure time. Hashem, therefore, asks: “Will they walk in My ways?” Will they use their suddenly available time productively in the pursuit of Torah study and observance?
The Seforno, for his part, suggests that Hashem wants to determine whether the Israelites will follow His dictates when “they are sustained without any pain.”often turn to God in times of need but ignore Him in times of comfort. Through the manna, Hashem challenges our ancestors : Will you turn to Me when your sustenance is attained with ease?
3. As Bnei Yisrael journey towards national independence, the manna sensitizes them to their dependence upon Hashem.
This message, arguably the most basic “test” incorporated in the miracle of the manna, is reflected in the following Talmudic conversation (Yoma 76a):
“The students of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai asked: ‘Why did the manna not descend for Israel once annually?’ He answered: ‘[In order that each Israelite] would worry – perhaps no manna will descend tomorrow… Thus they all turned their hearts to their Father in Heaven.’”
Centuries later, the Rashbam (to Shemot 16:4), mirroring the position of numerous other commentaries, elaborates upon the statement of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: “Since each and every day their eyes will turn to Me for their sustenance, they will come to believe in Me and walk in the ways of My Torah.”
The miracle of the manna thus emerges, with the first footfalls of our history, as a formative crucible conveying a lesson that, to this day, we forget at our own peril: Whether we are wandering in the wilderness or living in a highly urbanized society, we are dependent upon God for our sustenance each and every day.
A New Approach Based on the Kuzari
I would like to suggest a new approach based on a classic approach of Rav Yehudah Halevi in the first section of hisSefer HaKuzari. As is well known, the Kuzari proves traditional Jewish belief with our unparalleled claim of being descendents of the entire Jewish people, approximately three million individuals, who witnessed the divine revelation at Mount Sinai. He bolsters this proof by noting that the entire nation also witnessed the Man miracle every day (except for Shabbat) for forty years.
The compelling evidence of the Man is already expressed in the Torah (at the end of Parashat Ki Tavo; Devarim 29:3-6) which states that our eyes had been completely opened to the undeniable truth of Hashem and the Torah only after having experienced the daily arrival of the Man for forty years. An avowed skeptic could imagine that Moshe Rabbeinu somehow managed to fool our ancestors at Sinai by staging a phony revelation experience. However, no remotely reasonable individual could argue that Moshe Rabbeinu could falsify the presenting of food for an entire nation over a forty year period on a daily basis and in many different places.
Thus, the Man is, in the words of the Kuzari “evidence to the truth of the Torah that cannot be denied”. Accordingly, one may interpret the Man as a test to Jews of all generations “whether we shall observe the Torah”. The Man was not only a test for the generation that received the Man but also a test for all generations. We pass this test when we recognize the magnitude of the miracle of the Man and allow it to propel and compel us to live a life of Torah observance fully convinced of the truth of the path we have taken.
This Sukkot, when we sit in the Sukkah and relive the experience of our ancestors living in the Sinai desert for forty years, we can think not only of the Sukkot in which we lived but also of other aspects of this incredible experience. We have the opportunity to contemplate the miracle of the Man and deeply internalize the truth of the Torah.
The first portion of this essay (reviewing the classic approaches to our issue) is adapted from Rav Shmuel Goldin’s excellent work (Unlocking the Torah Text, Shemot pages 117-120).