This is a Test
Rabbi Melanie Aron
Saturday, February 4, 2012
We normally think of a test as a challenge, something difficult that will allow us to display our strengths or if things don’t go well, expose our weaknesses. The big game tomorrow in Indianapolis will be that moment of reckoning for the Giants and the Patriots as are the various primary elections and caucuses for those who aspire to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency.
In this week’s Torah portion, the manna is described as a test as well, but that has always puzzled me. The manna, God’s solution to the problem of feeding the Israelites in the desert, seems more like a gift than a test. By using the same words in relationship to the manna as the Torah uses in describing the meal that Abraham prepares for the three guests he welcomes, we find a hint that the manna was a reward to the Israelites in repayment for Abraham’s earlier hospitality. After all the manna breaks the curse pronounced at the time that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, that only by the sweat of our human brow would we eat bread. To this day our blessing states, hamotzi lechem min haaretz, who brings forth bread from the earth, but here the sustaining food was not growing up from the ground but falling gently from heaven. It doesn’t require any work on our part. Where’s the test?
Some commentaries state that the test was in the unfamiliarity of the manna. The 600,000 Israelite men who departed from Egypt were accompanied by women and children. Children especially tend to like familiar foods and the rabbis imagined the Israelites skeptical about the manna. What is this, they ask? Further, modern scholars note that the word manna is still used in Arabic today to refer to a sweet edible honeydew found in the Sinai desert in the summer months. This honeydew comes from the secretions that scale insects and plant lice deposit on tamarisk trees. In the cool of the desert night, these crystallize and fall to the ground as sticky solids. Sounds appetizing? Manna anyone?
Rabbi Louis Rieser, sees the test in another aspect of the manna. He notes that we are told that the Israelites were to gather as much as they wanted, but also that they gathered an omer per person. These two statements seem to be in conflict. An omer is about 2 quarts. Surely some people wanted more. From this Rabbi Rieser concludes that the manna was designed to provide “a sufficient portion but not a feast.”
The dependence on manna, like the wanderings through the desert, was thus a lesson in simplicity and in finding satisfaction in what one has. Those who attempted to take more, either out of greed, or out of anxiety that the Shabbat portion would not arrive, found that whatever extra they had taken decayed and became repulsive.
For the modern editor of the Conservative movement’s commentary, Etz Hayim, this had a broader societal meaning: “It was a violation of God’s plan for the people that some should grab more of the good things in life than their neighbors, ostentatiously gorging themselves while others went hungry.” For this commentator the omer measure was a guarantee that everyone would be provided for. That no one could hoard the manna meant that there would be no market for manna and thus no profiteering at the time that the supply diminished or ended all together.
Being able to feel that one has enough is more of a challenge in our community of abundance, than it may have been for the Israelites in the desert. Everything calls out to us, more, more. I know many of my friends watch the Super Bowl these days, not for the football, but for the commercials. They are watching for the new and for the snafu, but the whole premise of advertising runs counter to developing a life based on the teaching of our tradition: Who is Rich? The One who is satisfied with what they have.
One rabbi in the Talmud states that only those who live on manna can study Torah. “How can that be? “other rabbis ask. The manna was only in one time and place, but the study of Torah is for all times. This doesn’t mean manna literally, they conclude, but rather it is the feeling of having enough that allows one to internalize the teachings of the Torah.
Knowing when to say enough, is considered difficult in our tradition. It is so challenging that it is considered an attribute of God. One of the Biblical names of God, El Shaddai, is translated for this purpose by the rabbis, as the God who is able to day DAI, that is enough.
Pondering the test of the manna this year, let us consider whether we have the gift of simplicity, and the ability to say, deyenu, we have enough.