“The Message of the Manna”
(updated and revised from B’ha’a’lot’cha 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, we encounter the הָאסַפְסֻף–A’saf’suf, the so-called “mixed multitude,” who were dissatisfied with the Manna, the food that had been coming down from heaven. The people craved meat. In a bold and offensive manner, the people complain to Moses 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 declares, was an exceptional culinary delight. וְהַמָּן כִּזְרַע גַּד הוּא, וְעֵינוֹ כְּעֵין הַבְּדֹלַח, now the Manna was like the coriander seed, and its color was like the color of crystal. שָׁטוּ הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ וְטָחֲנוּ בָרֵחַיִם, אוֹ דָכוּ בַּמְּדֹכָה, וּבִשְּׁלוּ בַּפָּרוּר, וְעָשׂוּ אֹתוֹ עֻגוֹת, 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 declare that, in fact, the Manna tasted like whatever a person wanted it to be: 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 constantly worried about delivering tomorrow’s nourishment.

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

In years past, a 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 “wifeing,” 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 is one of the most insightful commentators on the Bible. His perspicacity and understanding is 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 how kind G-d is. With the Manna, G-d relieved the ancient Israelites of back-breaking labor and arduous farm work, and the Manna 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 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 for consumption is basically fixed in heaven. 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 that food is sacred. To appreciate sanctity, every person must focus on the source, and prepare to be worthy of receiving that sacred gift. 6) Every person’s expenses are predetermined. Adding to one’s personal possessions will not necessarily result in greater happiness, except in spiritual matters. So, for instance, one may achieve greater happiness by purchasing or preparing special Shabbat delicacies and treats. 7) And, finally, through the observance of Shabbat, by not laboring to gather the Manna on Shabbat, the workday week becomes more bearable and meaningful, providing fulfilling goals toward which to aspire.

We, who are blessed to live in the “instant” age and the age of abundance, 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 as humans, by stealing 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?”

“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.