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Parashat Eikev 5779

August 23, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev
By Rabbi Isaac Mann

In the beginning of this week’s Torah reading we have two references to the manna (man in Hebrew) that sustained the Israelites in the desert for forty years as a test (nisayon) by God. In this essay I wish to explore what was the nature of this test and how it relates to us in practical terms.

In his long exhortation to B’nei Yisrael, Moses reminds them that God had them travel in the wilderness for the past forty years that “He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat … in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (Deut. 8:2-3). A few verses later, Moses again reinforces this notion – “[God] who fed you in the wilderness with manna … in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end” (8:16). While the latter passage does not specify what the benefit was, in context it seems to reinforce the importance of observing God’s decrees.

Before we can get a better understanding of the nexus between the manna and acceptance of God’s commandments, it would help to go back to the original passage in Exodus that introduces us to the manna. There we first find reference to the manna as a test – “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’” (Ex. 16:4). This is followed immediately by a qualification that on the sixth day they are to collect a double portion for there won’t be any manna descending on the Sabbath day.

It would appear then that the test is designed to see whether the Israelites will obey the rules that God imposed upon them in connection with their partaking of the manna. Indeed, Rashi (ad loc.) specifies the two instructions that pertained, namely, that they not leave over any manna for the next day and that they not go out on the Sabbath to look for it. Indeed the Torah records that there were individuals who violated both precepts, which resulted in Moses and God respectively expressing anger at these miscreants.

Other commentators who seek a deeper meaning to the notion of the manna as a test suggest that the test was whether the people would follow a God who would make them totally dependent upon Him and not allow them to save from one day to the next (Ramban ad loc.) or perhaps the reverse – would they devote themselves to study the Torah and serve the Almighty now that they were freed from pursuing their material needs (Or Ha-Hayyim ad loc.).

Returning to Rashi, one may be tempted to ask what’s the big deal in passing the test. Surely, if manna falls every day on a regular basis, except for the Sabbath, and it always rots if you take extra, except for Friday, then who would have difficulty passing the test? Certainly, after the initial first few days or weeks, the normal pattern sets in and one accepts it as one who takes for granted the regular rise of the sun and the passing of the seasons. Only an imbecile would attempt to save manna or look for it on the Sabbath after a possible initial tryout. Thus, why would Moses need to remind the Jewish people forty years later that the manna was a test? The implication of his exhortation suggests that it was something that was ongoing.

Perhaps, one needs to see the two restrictions that the Torah gives regarding the manna, and that Rashi cites, as symbolic of what the Israelites needed to accept with their freedom from Egypt. As former slaves, they were used to having the security of knowing that if they did their taskmaster’s work, they would surely have food to eat. The cupboard of their overlord was no doubt stacked with food. But now as a newly emancipated nation, they had to depend on the One God, who they could not see, to be their provider. The purpose of the manna was to see whether they could transition to a people who would express faith and trust in an invisible God, for surely the manna was not going to be provided to them indefinitely.

Similarly, the role of the Sabbath was also part and parcel of increasing their reliance on a God who created heaven and earth and who instructed them not to work on that day despite the material losses that they would incur. Could the people go from a slave mentality that depends entirely on non-stop work in order to get your daily provisions to a nation that will keep the Sabbath laws and other mitzvot that restrict your actions because the Creator demands that of you.

It took forty years of wandering in the desert for God to transform the people into a holy nation that would indeed learn to have faith in One God and observe God’s commandments and trust that God will provide for their needs even after the manna ceases to descend from heaven, for they will now know that it’s not bread alone – it’s not material things by themselves – that ensures one’s life, but more important is our belief in God and adherence to Torah.

We too are constantly tested in our lives when we suffer losses, when tragedies occur, when we fail at what we are trying to do. Is our faith in God strong enough to see us get through these occurrences or do we give up and lose our trust? That is the manna test that all of us have to go through at different times. May God give us the strength and fortitude to pass those tests and be sustained by knowing that they are “to benefit you at the end.”
Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.