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G-d said to Moses: “Behold! I shall rain down for you food from Heaven. Let the people go out, and pick each day’s portion on its day, so that I can test them, whether they will follow My teachings or not.” (16:4).
These words open Parashat Ha-Man: the section of the Torah which recounts the way G-d supplied the Israelites with what they needed to eat in their forty years in the wilderness.
What is the real meaning of the word ‘anasenu’ – which is translated above in the sense of ‘testing’.; A similar word is used to describe G-d’s test of Abraham – ‘nisa et Avraham’ (Gen. 22:1) – when He commanded Abraham to prepare Isaac for a sacrifice. Why should His providing His people with their basic needs be a test?
Rashi (to 16:4) explains that when G-d wonders if the Israelites will ‘follow My teachings or not’, He is referring to the Mitzvot involving the manna itself. G-d commanded them that they must leave nothing over to the morning, and they must not go out on Shabbat to collect it. He wished to see if they would understand that manna did not give them just privileges, but responsibilities – and whether they would honor those rules and restrain themselves where necessary.
The Ramban labels Rashi’s explanation as ‘incorrect’ – and explains the word ‘anasenu’ differently. The test related to G-d’s putting the Israelites in a situation of being obviously totally dependent on Him. The manna was food that neither they nor their ancestors were familiar with. It was given in an uninhabited wilderness, a place of ‘snakes, serpent, and scorpions’ (Deut. 8:15). The Israelites were given manna one day at a time – in such a way as to leave them worried about tomorrow, lest it might not fall. Such a trial was severe: yet G-d wished to refine and strengthen them, to find out whether they were loyal to Him even under such crushing and difficult circumstances. As the Talmud (Yoma 76) expresses it:
R. Shimon bar Yochai’s students asked him, “Why did the manna not fall for Israel once a year?” He answered, “It was so that they would all worry that perhaps tomorrow it would not fall and their children would die of famine. That way, everyone would direct their hearts towards their Father in Heaven”.
According to this explanation, the test was the very fact of being provided with a type of food they did not know, in a place they did not know, and by a means of distribution they did not know.
This explanation may be developed by understanding ‘anasenu’ in the sense of ‘raising’ rather than ‘testing’ – indeed Bereishit Rabba understands the words ‘nisa et Avraham’ as ‘G-d spiritually raised Abraham’ – by putting him through the experience of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham himself would be a better person – closer to G-d. Similarly, the Israelites would be worthier of being the Am Segula – the treasured people of G-d – by becoming spiritually raised: by regularly recognizing their dependence on Him though the manna. Having already been ‘led’ to this higher spiritual level, and ‘known G-d better’, they would have had the ‘regular daily education’ to be able to ‘go according to His Torah’.
In addition, the text relates that the Manna supplied each and every Israelite according to the individual needs… which the Torah testifies was an ‘omer’ measure. “They measured in an Omer measure, and whoever took more had nothing extra, and whoever took less was not lacking; everyone had gathered according to his needs” (16:18). Rashi calls the phenomena of everyone receiving according to his needs, and all people’s need in the desert being the same, ‘a great miracle’.
This idea that G-d supplies people according to their physical and spiritual needs appears to underlie a difficult to explain story brought by the Talmud (Kethubot 67b).
A poor man who came before Raba. Raba welcomed the pauper warmly and asked, "What would you like to eat?" "A fat chicken and aged wine," answered the mendicant. He would settle for nothing less.
Raba asked, "How can you allow yourself such a menu?" After all, the man was not at all wealthy and he depended upon generous, charitable donations from the community. How, Raba asked, could such a man have accustomed himself to such luxury?
The pauper replied, "Do I partake from the table of the community? I eat at the Almighty's table!" He added a Biblical source for his assertion: "Everyone's eyes look longingly to You, and You provide them their food at his time” (Psalm 145). The beggar noted that the verse employs the singular form, "in his time," implying that the Almighty supplies each individual with his needs at the proper time.
Suddenly, a guest appeared at Raba's door. Raba had not seen her, his sister, in thirteen years, and out of the blue she came for a visit. And she didn't come empty-handed - she brought with her a fat chicken and aged wine.
Raba asked, "What is this? Why did this happen, that all of a sudden my sister comes with a fat chicken and aged wine? I have already spoken too much! Go and eat."
This story is hard to follow. Even if the fat chicken and aged wine had arrived just at the moment that the pauper had asked for them, Raba would have better uses for the food than give them away to a person whose real needs could have been satisfied with far more simple food. The chicken and wine were for Raba, not for the beggar.
The discussion about the manna suggests an answer. The beggar was not a glutton, as Raba may have suspected, but someone who genuinely appreciated good food and became closer to G-d for having partaken of it. His spiritual work at that moment was to come close to G-d – not through learning Torah, or praying, or observing the beauties of nature, but through the tongue - being given the opportunity to use His creations of quality meat and wine to appreciate Him, to come closes to Him. That chicken and wine were necessary for his avodah – service of his Creator, at that moment.
This is what Raba’s sister’s arrival taught Raba. Every person has different physical and spiritual needs, which – as the beggar told him – are catered for by G-d. The sudden timely arrival of the food was not a co-incidence, but G-d saying to Raba that he had judged the beggar to hastily. Raba had his avodah to do on his spiritual level – by learning and teaching Torah. The Israelites route to closeness to G-d was through the Manna. And the beggar’s path - and ulitmately his 'spiritual lift' - was the fatted chicken and old wine…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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