“Now when Pharaoh let the people go . . . ” (Exodus 13:17) or b’shalach, “sent away” the people, there were no shortcuts. God didn’t send the Israelites on the shorter coastal route, by way of the land of the Philistines, concerned that they might change their minds because of fear of war. They had what they needed for the journey: a pillar of cloud to guide them by day and a pillar of fire to give them light for their nighttime travels. Moses even took the bones of Joseph with them, fulfilling the promise their ancestors made. But the people were afraid, so when Pharaoh’s armies closed in on them by the Sea of Reeds, they cried out: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” (14:11).
In one last extraordinary manifestation of God’s power, the sea split, the people crossed through safely, and the armies of Pharaoh drowned as the waters covered over them. The Israelites celebrated their deliverance in song and dance, and then continued their journey—and their complaining.
First, the water was too bitter. Then, shortly after, there was grumbling about food: “If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal 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).
So “the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘I will rain down for them 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 (My Torah) or not’ ” (16:4). The instructions that followed specified how much of this bread from heaven each person was to gather, and gave injunctions against gathering on Shabbat or keeping any overnight. “The house of Israel named it manna; . . . and it tasted like wafers in honey” (16:31).
In the Book of Numbers, we are told that manna could be baked into cakes and tasted like “rich cream,” l’shad hashamen (Numbers 11:8). In a play on the word shad, which can also mean “breast,” the rabbis of the Talmud say that “just as the infant finds many a flavor in the breast, so did Israel find many a (wonderful) taste in the manna” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 75a).
The commentaries struggle with what Torah means when it says that the manna was a test. Rashi argues that the test was whether we would keep the precepts connected to the manna: not to leave anything over and not to go out to gather on Shabbat (Rashi on Exodus 16:4). It was one thing to have enough food for today, but what about tomorrow? Those who would try to save the manna, or to gather on Shabbat, demonstrated a lack of faith. . .and failed the test.
Ramban had a different interpretation. “It was a trial for them not to have . . . an alternative to the manna.” He focused on how boring it is to eat the same food day after day, no matter how delicious it was (Ramban on Exodus 16:4). We’ll read later in Numbers 21:5 how the Israelites complained: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” Commenting on that verse, Rashi describes manna as a food that is so totally absorbed into the body that there is no waste produced that must be excreted. But no matter how perfect a food source, we want variety, choice, and some degree of control over how we get our food.
Sforno understands the test described in Exodus 16:4 in yet another way: manna will make their lives so easy that the test will be how they use their leisure time, since the bread from heaven required no preparation. “[I] will cause to rain bread . . . that I may test them, whether they will walk in My Torah (follow My instructions) or not.”
The manna that fell from heaven was both a kindness and a test for our ancestors. There was enough food, both delicious and boring. There was enough food, but we had to have enough faith not to take more than we needed. We had everything we needed, so we had the time to do something of meaning with our lives.
Manna no longer falls from heaven, but the questions it raised for our ancestors are still alive for us. What is enough? Why do we so often want more than we really need? What compels us to hoard, to complain, or to be anxious? When can we say dayeinu, “it is enough for us”? How do we learn to be grateful for what we have been given and trust that what we have is actually enough, even in these difficult economic times. So much is given to us; how are we using those gifts?
A lovely story from the Talmud asks a different question about the manna: Why does the manna come every day and not once a year? It answers through a parable about a king and his son. When the king provided his son with his sustenance once a year, the son visited his father only once a year. When the father began to provide his sustenance daily, the son had to call on his father every day. So it is with Israel. If an Israelite had four or five children, he would worry saying, perhaps the manna won’t come tomorrow and my children will starve. And because the manna was coming down daily, the Israelites were compelled to direct their hearts to God (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 76a).
Manna is still flowing into our lives every day. Perhaps the biggest test is to be grateful, every day, and then to share what we have been given with others.
Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.