Responding to the complaints of the Israelites concerning lack of food, God introduces the miraculous fare that will sustain the nation during their travels: “Behold! I will rain down for you food from heaven; and the people will go out and collect each day’s portion on its day, that I may test them – will they follow My teaching or not?”
This refrain is repeated twice in the book of Devarim as Moshe, recalling the people’s journey in the wilderness, states:
“And you shall remember the entire road upon which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart – will you obey His commandments or not? And He afflicted you and let you hunger and He fed you the manna…in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live…. [The God] Who fed you manna in the wilderness…in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to do good for you in the end.”
Why does God associate the miracle of the manna with testing and affliction?
As the Abravanel asks, “What was the nature of the test administered by God through the bestowal of daily sustenance? …This was a kindness, not a test!”
Rashi, apparently unable to discern a test within the manna itself, contends that the trial actually emerges from an ancillary source. God grants miraculous sustenance to the Israelites and simultaneously tests them by determining “whether they will observe the commandments associated [with that sustenance].”
These commandments included the instruction to collect each day only the amount of manna necessary for that day, the prohibition of collection on the Shabbat, and the directive to collect a double portion on Friday in order to properly prepare for Shabbat.
Many other scholars, however, are unwilling to accept what they consider to be a somewhat facile solution to the mysterious “test” of the manna. The Ramban, for example, emphatically declares, “But this [Rashi’s explanation] is not correct…. [The manna itself] was a trial to them.”
While the text supports the position that the manna itself was a trial, the question remains: exactly what was the test embodied in this miraculous food?
The scholars offer, with subtle variations, three global approaches. Each of these approaches carries overarching lessons that move well beyond the specific phenomenon of the manna.
1. God tested and developed the faith of the Israelites by depriving them of the usual forms of sustenance and survival.
The Ramban, among others, champions this position both in Parshat Beshalach and in the book of Devarim:
“[God] could easily have led them through the surrounding cities. He led them, instead, through a wilderness of snakes, fiery serpents and scorpions, where the only bread fell from the heaven each day.”
“This was a serious trial for them: to have no other option, to enter a great wilderness…to have no sustenance other than the manna which fell on a daily basis and which melted when the sun waxed hot…. Nevertheless, they did all this in obedience to God’s command…. From this [God] would know that they would obey His commandments forever.”
With this approach, the Ramban remains true to his general position concerning divine tests: God tests man to actualize man’s inherent potential.
Through the trial of the manna, by severely rationing and circumscribing the sustenance of the Israelites, God actualizes their internal potential for faith. This faith, once realized, will sustain them not only in the wilderness but through their turbulent journey across the face of history.
2. By providing the Israelites with the manna, God confronts the fledgling nation with the plethora of challenges that emerge with a life of ease. Far from a test of deprivation, the manna actually constitutes a nissayon ha’osher, a trial of wealth and plenty.
The Ohr Hachaim notes, for example, that the manna provides the Israelites with the unfamiliar phenomenon of leisure time. God, therefore, asks: “Will they walk in My ways?” Will they use their suddenly available time productively in the pursuit of Torah study and observance?
The Sforno, for his part, suggests that God wants to determine whether the Israelites will follow His dictates when “they are sustained without any pain.” Man often turns to God in times of need but ignores Him in times of comfort. Through the manna, God challenges the Israelites: Will you turn to Me when your sustenance is attained with ease?
3. As the Israelites journey towards national independence, the manna sensitizes them to their dependence upon God.
This message, arguably the most basic “test” incorporated in the miracle of the manna, is reflected in the following Talmudic conversation:
[Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] answered: ‘[In order that each Israelite] would worry – perhaps no manna will descend tomorrow…. Thus they all turned their hearts to their Father in Heaven.’”
“The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked: ‘Why did the manna not descend for Israel once annually?’
Centuries later, the Rashbam, mirroring the position of numerous other commentaries, elaborates upon the statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “Since each and every day their eyes will turn to Me for their sustenance, they will come to believe in Me and walk in the ways of My Torah.”
The miracle of the manna thus emerges, with the first footfalls of our history, as a formative crucible conveying a lesson that, to this day, we forget at our own peril: Whether we are wandering in the wilderness or living in a highly urbanized society, we are dependent upon God for our sustenance each and every day.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.