“The Malbim Teaches the Lessons of the Manna”
(updated and revised from B’shalach 5764-2004)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, the recently freed Israelite slaves experience the fullness of G-d’s glory as they behold the splitting of the walls of water at the Sea of Reeds, and the people march through safely on dry land. An unrepentant Pharaoh, together with his chariots and his soldiers, are drowned in the sea. The Israelites, led by Moses and Miriam, sing Az Yashir, the great song of salvation, praising G-d for His miracles. Hence, the name for this Shabbat, Shabbat Shirah–the Sabbath of Song.

Despite the miraculous rescue that the Israelites experience, the people soon test G-d. The Talmud, in Arachin 15a/b, lists ten trials that the people tested the Al-mighty after the exodus. The first test occurred at Marah (Exodus 15:22-27), when the people complained that the waters there were bitter. Through miraculous intervention, Moses sweetens the water.

Not long after, the people journey to Elim. There, the entire assembly of the children of Israel once again complain to Moses and Aaron. They lament (Exodus 16:3): מִי יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד השׁם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, “If only we had died by the hand of G-d in the land of Egypt, as we sat by the pots of meat, and ate bread to satisfaction. Why did you take us out to this wilderness to kill this entire congregation by famine?”

The Al-mighty responds to Moses, saying (Exodus 16:4): הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם, “Behold I shall rain down for you bread from heaven. Let the people go out and collect each day’s portion on its day, so that I can test them to see whether they will follow my teachings or not.”

Soon after, a layer of dew descends to earth, and, behold, upon the surface of the wilderness was something thin, exposed, thin as frost. The children of Israel saw it, and said to one another (Exodus 16:15): מָן הוּא, What is it?” Moses tells them that it is the food (manna) that G-d has given them to eat. He then commands the people to gather an עֹ֫מֶרomer, a portion of manna, to serve to each member of their household. When the people gather the manna, they discover that no matter how much or little they had collected, they had exactly an omer for each person. Moses warned the people not to leave any manna overnight until morning. But, of course, the people did not obey, and the leftover manna became infested with worms and rotted.

On the sixth day of the week (Friday), Moses told the people that since tomorrow is a day of rest (Shabbat), they should gather a double portion, and keep it until the next morning. Miraculously, the manna did not rot. As expected, the Torah reports (Exodus 16:27), that on the seventh day (Shabbat), some people still went out to the fields expecting to gather manna, but could find none of the heavenly bread.

One of the most fascinating commentator son scriptures of the past two centuries, is the Malbim. Recognized for his brilliance while yet a child, the Malbim nevertheless lived a very difficult life. Because of the modern style of his writings, he was looked upon with suspicion by the Chassidim. The anti-religious, Maskilim, originally mistook him to be one of their own. But they soon learned to fear the power of his tongue and pen, and used every available opportunity to persecute him.

Students of Torah generally rely on the classical bible commentaries for the basic interpretations. Rashi, the Ramban, and the Ibn Ezra, all provide penetrating analyses of the text, and a fundamental elucidation of the religious, legal and philosophical issues presented by the scriptural verses. Later commentators, all rely on these earlier classical commentators for their own interpretations.

There is a perceptual difference between the early commentators and the later commentators. However, when studying the commentaries of the Malbim, it is easy to conclude mistakenly, that the Malbim belonged to the earlier school, despite the fact that he lived many hundreds of years later. His insights are so penetrating, his textual instincts so sharp, and his linguistic analysis so exceptionally brilliant, that Bible students often assume that his are the words of a רִאשׁוֹןRishon–an early (medieval) commentator, rather than an אַחֲרוֹןAcharon–a latter-day commentator.

In his commentary on the Torah, the Malbim presents seven “lessons” to learn from the manna.
1. The key to all individual or communal economic well-being is entirely in the hands of G-d.
2. “Bread” is of heavenly origin, not of earthly origin. The essential human nutrients are spiritual. Contrary to popular belief, humans do not subsist on physical bread, but upon that which comes out of the mouth of G-d.
3. Humans are not to be obsessed with the desire to amass wealth, for He who gives life, gives sustenance. While every person needs to make the effort to earn a living in order to put bread on the table, sustenance is designated from Heaven for everyone. He who makes the effort will ultimately find the reward.
4. A person who has what to eat today and says, “What shall I eat tomorrow?” is a person of little faith. G-d tests every person, and makes certain that those who follow the Torah’s dictates will receive their proper sustenance.
5. We learn from the manna that all things “holy” need preparation.
6. Every person’s economic status is predetermined in Heaven, except for the expenditures for Shabbat that are limitless.
7. By honoring the Sabbath, the other six days will be sustained properly.

It’s interesting to note that the Malbim expresses such profound faith in G-d’s sustenance, despite the fact that he himself endured great hardships in his own personal life. His early marriage to a wealthy man’s daughter ended in divorce. After remarrying, he was appointed to the prestigious position of Chief Rabbi of Bucharest, but was slandered by his enemies and accused of being a foreign agent. He was soon sentenced to death by court martial, and was saved only by the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore. The Malbim, however, was eventually banished from Romania.

After the Bucharest affair, the Malbim had a few years of respite when his wealthy father-in-law passed away leaving him a substantial estate in Luntshitz (Russia/Poland). Unfortunately, the Jew his family hired to help manage the estate turned out to be an unscrupulous swindler and the Malbim and his family were left penniless.

Forced to return to the rabbinate, this time in the White Russian city of Mohilov, the Malbim once again was persecuted by his enemies. Again, as a result of slander, he was forced to leave Russia in 48 hours.

And yet, the legacy of the Malbim endures. Not only endures, but prevails even today, particularly among Bible students and scholars. His commentaries shine brightly, luminescent in their extraordinary brilliance.

Perhaps, there is no greater lesson that can be learned from the manna than the lesson that we learn from the life of the Malbim, who truly believed, and lived with the belief, that all sustenance is a gift from the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the “Shira,” the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel and Miriam and the women of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central and essential role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song.

On Sunday night and Monday, February 5th and 6th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that specifically grow in the land of Israel.