“The Message of the Manna”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, we encounter the A’saf’suf, the mixed multitude, who were dissatisfied with the Manna, the food that has been coming down from heaven. They crave meat. In a bold and offensive manner, the people state that they would prefer to return to slavery in Egypt, rather than live on the detestable diet of Manna.

The Torah, in Numbers 11:7-9, testifies that these complaints are entirely unjustified. Manna, the Torah tells us, was an exceptional culinary delight. “V’hah’man kiz’ra gad hu, v’ayno k’ain hab’doh’lach,” now the Manna was like the coriander seed, and its color was like the color of crystal. “Sha’tu ha’am v’laktu, v’tah’chanu va’ray’cha’yim, oh da’chu bam’doocha u’vishlu ba’pah’rur, v’asu oh’toh oo’goht.” The people would stroll around and gather it, grind it in the mill, or pound it in the mortar to cook it in a pot and make it into cakes. It tasted like the taste of dough kneaded with honey. The Rabbis tell us that in fact the Manna tasted like whatever a person had in mind: steak, pizza, ice-cream. Sounds very much like what we today call “tofu.” How could anyone complain?

Manna, in essence, represents sustenance from heaven. The ancient Israelites, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, always knew from where their next meal would come, every single day. Although much has changed in the last 3,300 years since the food dropped from the skies, people still have the same concern about feeding their families, and are worried about providing tomorrow’s nourishment.

Of course, to provide for the needs of one’s household, one must have a means of support. One of the fundamental concepts driving and determining the course of much of today’s society is “career.” Ask a person to identify him or herself, and they most often respond: butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Practically no one refers to themselves as parent, spouse, doer of good deeds, or giver of charity. Our society has set “career” as the supreme form of self identity.

In years past, career was merely a way of putting bread on the table, of making certain that the babies’ stomachs were filled, and providing proper shelter. Careers would be pursued, but not worshiped. The primary functions in life would be “husbanding” and “wifing,” mothering and fathering–making a life, rather than making a living. Sadly, we’ve lost perspective of what function our jobs are supposed to play, and have allowed our jobs, in essence, to become our lives.

The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Leibish, who lived from 1809-1879, is one of the most insightful commentators of the Bible. His perspicacity and understanding are so profound that his words read as though they were written thousands of years ago, rather than less than 150 years ago. In his commentary on Exodus 16, where we are first introduced to Manna, the Malbim argues that G-d’s purpose in providing food from heaven was to inspire the human being to look heavenward, to see the extent of G-d’s kindness. With the Manna, G-d relieved the ancient Israelites of back-breaking labor and arduous farmwork, providing them with physical and spiritual nourishment on a daily basis.

The Malbim cites seven important lessons to be gleaned from the heavenly bread: 1) Manna teaches that the key to economic success is ultimately in G-d’s hands. Those who think that of themselves as unerring stock pickers are in for a rude awakening. 2) The Malbim argues that bread, as much as it seems to be a product of the earth, is really a product of the heavens. Humans may plant the seed, but without rain and sun, all effort is for naught. 3) Manna teaches that the portion that one is allotted is basically fixed. One need not overwork to succeed. One need only make the basic effort, because ultimately G-d provides. 4) Even more important than mastering new skills and work techniques is the fundamental requirement of mastering the art of having faith in G-d as the ultimate provider. 5) The Manna teaches us that food is sacred. To appreciate sanctity, one must focus on the source, and prepare oneself to be worthy of receiving that sacred gift. 6) All of one’s expenses are predetermined. Adding to one’s possessions will not necessarily result in greater happiness, except in spiritual matters. So for instance, one may achieve greater happiness by making a more luxurious Shabbat. 7) And finally, through the observance of Shabbat, by not laboring to gather the Manna on Shabbat, the work-day week becomes more bearable and meaningful, providing fulfilling goals towards which to aspire.

We, who are blessed to live in the “instant” age, have lost much of our ability to appreciate the beauty of the moment, the blossoming of the flower, the clearing of the sky after the rain, the embrace of a child. Our frenetic-paced lives and demanding careers, have reduced us and have stolen much of our humanity. Dennis Prager, the West Coast author and radio host, quotes a rabbi saying that he’d never met a congregant who, with his last dying breath, had complained, “O Rabbi, O Rabbi, how I’ve wasted my life. Why didn’t I spend more time at the office?”

To live the meaningful life is the message of the Manna. Let us make the effort to master this message, before our jobs, our labors and our careers master us.

May you be blessed.