manna for all seasons
As Moses continues recounting to the Israelites the story of the journey through the wilderness, he describes the manna, the miraculous heaven-sent food that sustained the people of Israel on their travels:
And he fed you with manna, which you had not known, that he might test you to know what was in your heart, and whether or not you would keep his commandments…(Devarim VIII:3 )
According to the Bible the manna was a miraculous form of nourishment, with remarkable qualities. One Midrash even suggests that it would taste like whatever food the person eating it wanted. So why, in the verse above, would Moses describe this remarkable food as a “test”?
Many of the traditional commentators suggest reasons why eating the manna may have been a test for the Israelites in the wilderness. Rashi (France, Cth) suggests that the test was whether the Israelites would observe the laws relating to the manna, in particular that they should gather a double portion on Friday, and none on the Shabbat. Nachmanides (Spain-Israel C13th) suggests that the trial was the strange nature of the food which neither they nor their fathers had known. Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, C15th), however, suggests an interpretation with a surprisingly contemporary ring:
“That He might put you to the test” – to see if you will do His will even when He gives you sustenance without suffering.
In this view, the test for the Israelites is whether, after years of slavery and hard work, they will able to be faithful and God-fearing in times of prosperity. It is for this reason Moses recounts the “test” of the manna, just as the people are about to enter the land of Israel. For Israel too is a land of prosperity. As Moses tells the people:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of books of waters of fountains… and land of wheat and barley, in which you shall eat bread without scarceness… Beware lest you forget the Lord your God. (Devarim V111:7-8)
Moses recounts the test of the manna to remind the people that prosperity is not only a blessing; it is also a challenge – to their faith and their values. As the classic Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz notes:
The Torah sings the praises of the land to emphasise also the moral dangers and pitfalls that such gifts might bring with them.
While the manna only fed the Jewish people in the wilderness, its message was to accompany them throughout the generations. A jar of manna traveled with the Israelites, alongside the Ten Commandments, in the Ark of the Covenant throughout their travels, and it is a Jewish custom to recite “parshat HaMan”, the biblical passage describing the manna, at the end of the morning prayers every day.
Today, when the State of Israel has a thriving economy, and when, in the space of a few brief decades, the country has transformed itself from being a fragile agricultural economy to an advanced and sought-after high-tech business environment, the message of manna is as relevant as ever: the challenge of the Jewish state is not simply to prosper, but also to retain its integrity and values in times of prosperity.
In others’ words
The Governor of the Bank of Israel on prosperity and education:
“I have been asked to talk today about the Israeli economy. In brief, the economy is doing well… Our inflation rate is low. We have a current account surplus. We are about to enter the fourth year of growth that began in the middle of 2003, at the end of the deepest recession in the history of Israel… “Here is where higher education and the universities come in. The creation of the Hebrew University is in many ways a miracle. It was no small matter to establish a university that meets international standards in a community as small as that of the Yishuv in Palestine, as far as it then was from the centers of academic life. It is also no small matter to have established a system of higher education as good as that in Israel…. For a good university is far more than a source of technological progress; it is a repository and source of knowledge, of culture, of values, of civilization. That too is why a society – why Israel – needs to cherish and support its universities and its system of higher education.”
Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, Acceptance Speech for Honorary Degree,Hebrew University, June 2006
On a lighter note
Sarah and Chaim are lying in bed. Sarah rolls over to Chaim and asks: “Chaim, are you comfortable?”
Without opening his eyes, Chaim replies: “I make a living.”