Parashat B'shalah

The Test Of The Manna

The manna tested the character of the newly freed Israelites--how they would respond to a situation of plenty and how they would cultivate their relationship with God.

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Similarly, Ramban (Nachmanides) writes a long commentary on this verse, in which he expounds the drama of the Israelites' situation. They were in the desert wilderness, a "wilderness of snakes and scorpions," taken there out of slavery by an unfamiliar ancestral God, who each day provided a strange food that neither they nor their ancestors had ever seen before. The people didn't know if this invisible God would in fact provide food every day; they only received it one day at a time, with no assurances for the future. Under those circumstances, writes Ramban, the test is whether they would follow God even if they only had one day's supply of food.

Philosophically, then, Rashi sees the test as one of obedience, whereas Ramban sees the test as one of faith. However, either approach answers Abarvanel's question--yes, providing the Israelites with sustenance is an act of beneficence, but these too can be tests.

To put it another way, the test of the Israelites was not a test of endurance or sacrifice, but a test of character under conditions of plenty. Freed from the need to work hard every day just to eat, would they grow spiritually, or would they become spiritually lazy?

Different aspects of this challenge can be inferred from the different commentator's interpretations. Ibn Ezra says that the test for the Israelites was to rely on God every day; turned around, we can understand this as the challenge of practicing gratitude, of becoming alive to the wonder of our continued existence. Every day we can wake up and be thankful for what we have--or we can take our situation for granted, and forget the Source of All Life.

Following Ramban, we can ask ourselves how willing we are to take spiritual risks when the future is not assured--do we follow a Godly path despite the detours and unfamiliar terrain such a journey must inevitably entail? Do we demand absolute predictability--which, after all, is the one thing the Israelites had as slaves in Egypt--or are we willing to take things "one day at a time," opening ourselves to faith?

Another commentator, Hizkuni (France, d.1250) quotes an interpretation that the test was to see if the Israelites would use their time to study Torah, now that they had leisure time on their hands. That question applies as directly to our age as it does to the Torah story under consideration. [What do we do with all the time saved from our modern 'time-saving devices? Do we watch another episode of ER, or use the time to make the world a better place or to grow spiritually?]

Finally, returning to Rashi, we can infer that gifts carry with them responsibilities. The manna was a gift from God, but God asked that it be treated with respect and reverence. Do we, in fact, appreciate with reverence the gifts we have been given, and act accordingly? If the manna was symbolic of the sustenance we all too often take for granted, we can ask ourselves if we give back to God, through acts of charity and compassion, some of what has been given to us.

To cultivate the quality of wonder; to practice gratitude; to act responsibly with all we've been given--that's the test, every day.

Note: Yehuda Nachshoni's book, which elucidates different Torah commentaries, was helpful to me in preparing this column; the specific chapter in Nachshoni which discusses these issues was pointed out to me by R. Robert Wexler at the American Jewish University.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.