Beshalah: Eating the manna and receiving the Torah

This week's Torah portion.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week, we read about Kiryat Yam Suf, the Parting of the Red Sea, that miraculous event when the sea was parted for the Jewish nation and immediately afterward, the Egyptians drowned in that same sea. Following this, the liberated nation sang Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, the song that burst from the hearts of the men and women of the nation who had just been saved from certain death and witnessed the fall of their oppressors.
As we continue to accompany the nation on its journey through the desert, we encounter the difficulties and mishaps with which the nation must contend again and again. At first, they reach a bitter lake and have no water to drink. After this problem is solved, they discover an even more serious one that seemingly has no solution: hunger. Remember, they are in the desert, a place that Moshe calls “that great and fearful desert,” and which the prophet Jeremiah describes as “a land not sown.” This is a place where it is not possible to sustain oneself. The future seemed bleak and hopeless.
At this point, the nation breaks down and turns to its leaders with a serious complaint: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death!” (Exodus 16:3) And then this surprising answer is given: “So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold! I am going to rain down for you bread from heaven, and the people shall go out and gather what is needed for the day.’” (Exodus 16:4) This food which was “bread from heaven” was termed “manna” and the nation ate it while it was in the desert until it reached the Promised Land, the Land of Israel.
The sages of the midrash who delved into the significance of every verse in the Torah focused on the unique and interesting connection between eating the manna and Maamad Har Sinai, the revelation at Mount Sinai when the Jewish nation received the Torah; an event that took place not long after the Exodus from Egypt. The sages said: “The Torah could be given only to eaters of manna.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Beshalah) In this short sentence, the sages linked the story of eating the manna with receiving the Torah and created a co-dependence between them. If the nation would not have eaten the manna, state the sages, it would not have been capable of receiving the Torah. Why? What is the connection between eating manna and receiving the Torah? To understand the link between eating manna and the Torah, we must notice an important detail in the story of eating the manna in which the answer to our question lies. The Torah tells us: “And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave over [any] of it until morning.’ But [some] men did not obey Moses and left over [some] of it until morning, and it bred worms and became putrid.” (Exodus 16:19-20) The manna could only be eaten on the day it was gathered from the open areas adjacent to the Jewish nation’s encampment.
This clear instruction from Moshe forbade leaving any manna over to the next day.
Despite this clear-cut directive, there were those who did not withstand temptation and left some of the food for the next day, but it spoiled and bred worms.
The truth is that if we think of those people who left some of the manna on the side, we can easily understand their motives.
They were in a desert, a place where sustenance was impossible. True, today a miracle occurred and bread came down from heaven, but why should we have faith that this sort of miracle will happen tomorrow as well? And if not, death is a certainty in such a place. In this situation, the demand not to leave food over for the next day is illogical and very hard to keep. Whoever wanted to follow Moshe’s instructions needed tremendous spiritual strength and complete faith in G-d who would not let His nation starve to death. Was this easy? Of course not.
Now we can understand why the Torah was given to the eaters of manna. Sometimes, learning Torah and fulfilling mitzvot demand courage and faith such as the eaters of the manna needed. A man who decides, for example, to keep Shabbat, and is afraid of suffering financial loss, often faces huge difficulties. Likewise, a man who decides to set aside daily or weekly time for learning does this while giving up other activities. Sometimes a man might ask himself: How can I stand it? And the answer is: Indeed, the Torah was given purposely to the eaters of the manna. We need courage, faith in G-d, and complete belief that correct action does not lead to any damage and that walking the right path always leads us to the right and worthwhile goal. And from whom can we learn to have this faith if not from the eaters of the manna? The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.