Parshat Beshalach: The Reciprocal Relationship between Thought and Action

And Hashem said to Moshe: Now, I will rain for you bread upon the camp from the heavens. The nation will go forth each day and collect (it). In this manner, I will try them as to whether or not they will go in the way of my laws. (Shemot 16:4)

1. The introduction of the mun and its laws

Parshat BeShalach provides the Torah’s first mention and a description of the mun – the manna – that sustained Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. One month after the nation’s departure from Egypt, the people arrived at the Wilderness of Sin. In this wilderness, there was no obvious source of food. The people bemoaned their plight and grumbled that death in Egypt would have been preferable to their impending starvation in this wilderness; in Egypt, at least they had food to eat – even meat. In response to the complaints of the nation, Hashem gave them mun in the morning. Also, in response to their longing for meat, Hashem brought the people quail in the evening.

Hashem established a number of laws related to the daily collection of the mun. The people were only permitted to collect enough for the day. They were required to completely consume the daily portion and they were not permitted to save any for the next day. If any was hoarded, it spoiled that day and was unusable the next day. On Friday, they were to collect a double-portion that would suffice for that day and for the entire Shabbat. It would not spoil. On Shabbat, the mun did not fall and the people were enjoined against leaving the camp to search for the mun.

In the above passage, Hashem explains His reason for providing the nation with mun. Through the mun, He will try the nation and determine whether the people will follow the laws He has established. This is a strange statement. The mun was granted in order to sustain the people. Testing the people’s obedience seems to be a secondary objective. Yet, in Hashem’s explanation of His reason for granting the gift of mun, He does not mention the people’s legitimate need for sustenance and identifies as His primary objective the testing of the nation.

2. Greed and its origins

A comment of Rashi can help explain this passage. Rashi comments that the nation’s request for sustenance was appropriate. However, the longing for meat was not warranted. This is for two reasons: First, the people should have realized that meat is a luxury and not a necessity. Second, the nation left Egypt with all of their cattle. If they truly desired meat, then they could have slaughtered their own cattle and satisfied their perceived need.[1]

Of course this raises an interesting question: why did the people not slaughter their own cattle? If their need for meat was so intense, they could have easily satisfied it! Rav Yisroel Chait suggests that apparently the nation was motivated by greed. They were unwilling to slaughter their own animals in order to satisfy their desire for meat. He further explained that generally, greed stems from one of two sources. For some people, greed is an expression of haughtiness. These individuals are driven to amass more and more wealth because they believe that their possessions and resources reflect upon their own greatness and accomplishments. They are unwilling or unable to share with others lest they diminish their wealth and thereby, its representation of their own greatness. However, for others, greed is an expression of an almost opposite attitude. It stems from a deep sense of insecurity. Such individuals are dominated by fear of impending disaster and they cannot overcome their anxiety. In response, they devote themselves to preparing for the potential catastrophe that may come with the new day. They cannot arrest their need to amass resources because this is their response to their anxiety and they cannot share their resources because they believe that this may jeopardize their own survival when the doom they fear does arrive.

Rav Chait explained that it is unlikely that the greed of recently liberated slaves was driven by a fantasy of greatness. However, we can easily imagine the fears and anxieties of a generation that had barely survived its generation’s Holocaust – the bondage and persecution of Egypt. They were now in the wilderness. They had no source of sustenance. Yes, they longed for meat; but they were unwilling to draw upon the one finite source of nourishment that was available to them – their cattle.

3. Mun as a response to the nation’s anxiety

Based upon this insight, Rav Chait explains that the mun was intended to address the nation’s sense of anxiety and insecurity. The mun fell each and every day – except Shabbat. It was a miracle granted by Hashem. Hashem demonstrated to the people that He is the only real source of security. The message of the mun was that through their relationship with Hashem they can achieve the only true security.[2]

It is now possible to re-approach the above passage. The objective of the mun was not merely to provide sustenance. Other means could have accomplished the same end. Instead, the mun was designed to address the nation’s anxieties and insecurities. It was intended to instill within the people a confidence based upon reliance upon and trust in Hashem. The message of the passage seems to be that this objective could not be accomplished merely through the consistent appearance of the mun on a daily basis. In other words, even though the people would see the mun spread upon the ground day-after-day, they would continue to struggle with their anxiety. Only through observance of the laws related to the mun would they overcome their insecurities. Why would they not be able to overcome their fears through observing Hashem’s constant care for them and His commitment to their welfare? Why were the laws needed?

4. Action and Thought

Sefer HaChinuch notes that there is a reciprocal relationship between our thoughts and our actions or behaviors. We all realize that our thoughts inform and guide our actions. For example, when we feel threatened, we may respond through either engaging in action to defend ourselves or to attack and eliminate our adversary. But our actions also inform and influence our thoughts and attitudes. For example, if we force ourselves to engage in positive behaviors, we eventually influence and improve our self-image. Often actions have a more powerful impact upon our ideational reality – our thoughts and attitudes – than can be achieved though reflection and contemplation.[3] This can be illustrated. Consider a person who suffers from agoraphobia – fear of open spaces. No doubt this person has been told by countless friends and colleagues that his fear is irrational. He probably, at some level, realizes that this is true. But despite all of the assurances he has received that his fear is baseless, he cannot shake his sense of foreboding when challenged to travel outside of his home. However, if this person can be persuaded to take a first small step towards confronting his fear – perhaps, just standing in the doorway of his home and gazing upon the world outside – he may begin to overcome his anxieties.

Now, the function of the mitzvot regarding the mun is more clearly grasped. These laws demanded that the people act in a manner that expressed security in Hashem. They were commanded to collect only enough mun for the day. They were forbidden from hoarding the mun. They were commanded to collect a double portion on Friday and trust that it would not spoil over the course of the following day. Each and every one of these laws reinforced through action the ideas and attitudes the mun was designed to communicate. The people not only observed Hashem’s constant attention to their well-being. They also, acted in a manner that reinforced their acceptance of Hashem as their trusted provider. Through this process, the nation was provided the opportunity to gradually overcome its anxieties.[4]

1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 16:8.
2. Rav Yisroel Chait, Shir al HaYam, YBT TTL #C-059.
3. Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 16.
4. Rav Chait suggests an alternative explanation for the function of these laws. He explains that in order to cultivate within the nation a sense of security based upon its relationship with Hashem, it was necessary for Hashem to become a reality for them; the people must enter into a relationship with Hashem. This relationship is created through the observance of mitzvot and the study of their laws. The mitzvot and their laws reflect the wisdom of Hashem. Through Torah observance and study, we draw closer to Hashem and He becomes more real to us. He points out that in a preceding similar incident in Marah, Hashem responded to the nation’s fears through providing mitzvot and requiring their regular study. The Sages identify the mitzvot given at that time and they are not specifically related to the incident or related to issues of insecurity. This implies that the study and observance of mitzvot – any mitzvot – is helpful in nurturing a person’s sense of reliance upon Hashem and security. This is because through study and observance of mitzvot, Hashem becomes more real and a relationship is forged between Hashem and the person.