This shiur is
dedicated by Drs. Jerry and Barbara Belsh.
By Rav Ezra
Let us ask the question the Jews asked in the desert, when they first
encountered the manna:
The Israelites saw,
and they said to each other, "WHAT ('mann') is it," for they did not know what
it was (16,15).
I would like to change the meaning of the question slightly. What
precisely is the point of having manna fall from the sky, with its special
quality of being unhoardable? What is the reason that the manna is connected to
Shabbat observance? What is the meaning of the manna, within the context of the
narrative of Parashat Beshalach?
Parashat Ha-man is
contained in chapter 16 of Sefer Shemot. Let us first examine the verses and
list the apparent anomalies and difficulties.
16,1: "They traveled
from Eilim, and the entire congregation of the children of Israel came to the
desert of Sin, which is between Eilim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the
second month of their exodus from Egypt." Why are the location and the time here
spelled out so extensively? If we compare this stop on their way with the
previous two, we will not find a comparable specificity - "They came to Mara"
(15,22), "They came to Eilim" (15,27). In neither case is there a date, or an
attempt to exactly locate the station within the larger, and presumably better
known, geographic picture.
16,2: "The entire
congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moshe and Aharon in
the desert." There is something missing here. This verse should have been
preceded by a statement that there was no food in Midbar Sin, or that their
original stores ran out. When they complained in Mara, the Torah first explained
that "they could not drink the water in Mara, for it was bitter" (15,23).
Similarly, in Refidim, we first find "there was no water for the people to
drink" (17,1), and only then, "And the people argued with Moshe and said, give
us water" (17,2). Why is the reason in our case for the complaint not
What is indicated by
"... Israel complained... IN THE DESERT?" We already know that the location is
"the desert of Sin." Naturally, if the complained, they complained in the
desert. Why does the Torah append this geographic location to the
complaint of the Jews is followed by a confusing list of speeches of God, Moshe
and Aharon. This is the order as described in the verses:
God tells Moshe that
He will send down "bread from the heaven" to be collected each day, except for
Friday, when there will be a double portion (4-5).
Moshe AND AHARON tell
the Jews that in the evening and the morning they will witness that God will
hear their complaint, "but what are we that you should complain about us?"
Moshe then - well, he
seems to say exactly the same thing again (8).
Moshe tells Aharon to
gather the Jews before God (9).
God tells Moshe that
He will give the Jews meat in the evening and bread in the morning
After the manna
falls, Moshe explains to the Jews what the rules for collecting manna are,
without mentioning Shabbat (15-16).
God promises meat by
evening, and indeed the camp is covered with quail (13). But there is no further
reference to the quail, nor are we told of the reaction of the people to this
event, even though previously Moshe had predicted that "in the evening, and you
shall know that God has taken you out of Egypt." What is the status and the
meaning of the quail, especially in relation to the manna, which is described at
length and clearly is at the center of the story?
There are more
questions, but that will do for now. (See the Ramban for some discussion of each
of these questions).
Let us start from the second and third question. The Ramban already
suggests that the answer to the second is found in the third. The reason the
Jews complained was because they were in the desert. They "complained… in the
desert" means that their complaint was formed and caused by their being in the
desert. Now, you might understand this to be no more than a shorthand way of
saying that they had no food, since the desert is associated in our minds with a
shortage of food. But that is not what I am suggesting, for had that been the
case, I still would expect the Torah to state that "there was nothing to eat"
just as when there is no water, that is explicitly stated. Rather, I am
suggesting that there was, at least for the moment, plenty of food. It was the
fact that they were entering the desert, a place where there is no assured
supply of food IN THE FUTURE, that led to the complaints. It was not hunger, but
uncertainty, that caused the unrest.
In fact, the desert is not necessarily a place where there is no food.
More importantly, the Jews were only a few weeks from Egypt, and they had
originally planned a trip that would have to take at least that long. Even the
short route ("the way of the land of the Philistines") would have necessitated a
trek of several weeks. If we assume that their immediate goal is Mt. Sinai (as
God had promised Moshe in Shemot 3,12), they have yet some distance to go, and
presumably they should have prepared food. We know that they had their flocks
with them, and there is, as yet, apparently no shortage of water. So why are
they complaining about imminent death from starvation?
The answer is not that they are feeling hunger but that they are scared.
In the desert, it is difficult to know where your food will come from. They are
no longer sure of the path (since they are not on the "way of the land of the
Philistines"), and they are now "in the middle of nowhere" (between Eilim and
Sinai). They lack not food but faith.
This is indicated by the picturesque language used to describe Egypt –
the pot of meat. The contrast between the desert and Egypt is between a land of
unknown resources and a full pot. They remember not the fullness of their
bellies but the fullness of the pot; in other words, the assurance of food
tomorrow. This is what they find so disturbing in the present – not the lack of
food per se, but the lack of a pot brimming with an abundance of food. What was
so special about Egypt was that there was more food than they could eat, and
THAT is what they miss now.
In fact, we can not
be sure that they always ate well in Egypt, for, as slaves, they might well have
been deprived by their masters. But they undoubtedly had enough to survive and
continue working, and, since this was Egypt, they had no fear for the future in
This situation, the assurance of tomorrow's meal without necessarily
being richly fed now, is in fact the essence of being a slave. The slave has no
riches of his own, but he relies on his master, who is rich. The complaint of
the Jews when they reach the desert is a direct expression of their slave
mentality, and their memories of Egypt are a form of nostalgia for the security
of enslavement. To a slave, whose meal comes every day at the same time from the
hands of his master, the desert is truly a terrifying place, even if at the
moment he still has food in his hands.
We now understand the answer to the first question. The geographic
location is "the desert of Sin, which is between Eilim and Sinai;" in other
words, halfway between a place of abundant food (seventy palms and twelve
springs) and their direct goal, Sinai. The time frame is "on the fifteenth day
of the second month of their exodus from Egypt;" in other words, halfway between
the crossing of the sea and the revelation of Sinai. (Actually, they were 24
days from the sea and 21 days from the giving of the Torah, but I think it is
close enough. In fact, the midpoint here may be not in the number of days but in
the count of the months. They left in the first month, the Torah is given in the
third, and they are now precisely in the middle of the second, intermediate,
month). The Torah is stressing to us the feeling of "being in the middle" – away
from Egypt, but not yet at their goal. The open-ended future, cut off from their
origin but not yet in sight of their destination, between worlds, as it were, is
the background to their situation. The actual distance from Egypt is not great,
nor is the time that has transpired sufficient to actually exhaust their
food-supply, but mentally, psychologically, they are halfway from
The manna is God's
answer to this complaint. We all know the special conditions of the manna – it
fell every morning, but could not be stored for the next day. Everyone received
the same amount. The attempt to hoard resulted in its becoming wormy and ruined.
God explicitly tells Moshe that this is not merely a blessing but a "test"
(nisayon) – "will they follow My Torah or not" (16,4). Rashi explains this test
as referring to the laws associated with the manna. I would suggest, following
the Ibn Ezra, that it refers not to any specific law but to the entire
relationship of the Jews to God in the desert. "'In order to test them' -
because they will need Me every day" (Ibn Ezra 16,4). The Manna is, in a sense,
a recreation of the assured dependence of the slave on his master, only that God
has replaced the Egyptian master. On the other hand, because God is not a
natural cause, and His bounty cannot be seen with the same sense of natural
assurance that the overflowing Nile gives to the population of Egypt, this is a
test of faith. The manna will fall daily without failure, God promises, and you
will be totally dependent on that promise, because it is impossible to
accumulate manna and save it for a rainy day. The experience of the manna is a
kind of education, training the Jews to have faith in the providence of God,
weaning them from a dependence on hoarding, which would have been, perhaps, a
natural reaction to their separation from the fleshpots of
This helps us to
understand the deep connection between the manna and Shabbat. One of the
messages of Shabbat is that everything has to be prepared beforehand. On Shabbat
one does not accumulate anything at all, but relies only on what has been
prepared. This message is explicated in our parasha - "On the sixth day, they
shall prepare that which they shall bring" (16,5). Shabbat is, for all
generations, a small trial of dependence, where one enjoys what one has without
gathering for the morrow. Imagine the feeling of the recently released slave,
when finally, on the sixth day, he has managed to put aside a small nest-egg, a
small security for the rainy day he knows in his Jewish heart will surely come -
and then, on the next day, Shabbat, he has to eat his savings and go back to
living on the edge of penury! Naturally, he can barely resist and goes out and
tries to gather on the Shabbat, in order to protect his savings. "On it came
about on the seventh day, some of the people went out to gather, but they did
not find" (27).
This lies at the
heart of the mysterious unknown nature of the manna as well. Were the manna to
be any form of a familiar food, no matter how unexpected it were initially, the
Jews would have come to view it eventually as the natural food found in this
particular desert. It would have become a natural resource, a form of security
for the inhabitants of the desert. But God wishes the Jews to remain on the edge
of insecurity, with the desert remaining a land that does not provide assured
food. Hence, manna is not the food of the desert but "bread from the heavens"
(4), and the only thing the Jews can say when they encounter it is "what!?" What
is it - its name is a question. "Mann hu?" - what is it? Therefore "The house of
Israel called it mann" (31).
In the initial speech
of Moshe to the Jews, he tells them that there will be meat in the evening and
bread in the morning. Indeed, that is what takes place - quail covering the camp
in the evening and the manna in the morning. We do not find the quail mentioned
again except in exceptional circumstances (the episode of Kivrot Hataava,
Bamidbar 11). This parasha itself concludes with the statement, "The Israelites
ate manna for forty years, until they arrived at an inhabited land, they ate
manna until they arrived at the edge of the land of Canaan" (35). While this
does not necessarily mean that they ate nothing else, it definitely seems to
imply that their only regular food was manna. (See Ramban v.12, who states that
the quail fell for forty years). What happened to the quail, and what was the
purpose of its falling in the evening?
To answer this, we
have to follow very closely the multiple speeches of God and Moshe in the
beginning of the story (question 4). When God first responds to the complaint of
the people, He does not mention the quail. "Now I am going to rain down bread
from the heaven, and the people shall go out to gather every day's amount" (4).
At this point, God already mentions that on the sixth day there will be a double
portion. Immediately afterwards Moshe and Aharon speak to the people, and, for
the first time and without apparent command from God, tell them that
in the evening, you
will know that God has taken you out of Egypt; and in the morning, you will see
the glory of God, when He hears your complaint against God, but who are we, that
you should complain against us (7,8).
Moshe then makes
explicit the meaning of "evening and morning," telling them,
when God gives you
meat in the evening and bread in the morning in satiation, when God shall hear
your complaints which you complain against Him, but who are we; your complaints
are not against us but against God (8).
Only after Aharon
gathers the people do we find God saying to Moshe:
Say to them, you
shall eat meat towards evening and in the morning be satiated with bread, and
you shall know that I am HaShem your God" (12).
What is happening here? Apparently, there are two different issues. One
is the faith issue I described above. God's answer to that is the manna, with
Shabbat emphasized. But Moshe and Aharon have seized on another issue. The Jews,
in their complaint, have complained to Moshe and Aharon and placed the
responsibility for their plight squarely on their shoulders. "Would that we had
died by the HAND OF GOD in the land of Egypt... for YOU have taken us out to
this desert, to kill all this congregation by hunger" (3). Moshe perceives a
basic error of religious knowledge here. The Jews fail to see the guiding hand
of God in the exodus and in the path in the desert. Moshe therefore speaks to
the people and admonishes them, telling them that their complaint is not against
him and Aharon, but against God. Moshe emphasizes that when they see the
miracles of the quail and the manna, they will "know that God has taken you out
of Egypt" (6). It appears to me that the manna is the basic answer to the slave
mentality of the Jews, which is not so much a sin as a condition. God does not
give the manna as a punishment or a rebuke, but as a gift. The quail, on the
other hand, although food, carries within it a rebuke, similar to what happens
in Parashat Behaalotekha, when the Jews rebel against the regimen of the manna
and God bombards them with quail (Bamidbar 11). The purpose of the quail is
directly to correct the theological transgression and to show them that God is
in charge of their destiny. Precisely because the quail is a natural solution
(though miraculous in its appearance in this place and time), it demonstrates
God's mastery over NATURE, and therefore His responsibility for their fate. The
manna, on the other hand, shows that those who are God's servants are completely
out of the bounds of nature and are fed directly from "His
How could Moshe and Aharon have promised the quail if God did not first
tell them? The answer presumably is that God DID tell them, since it is
inconceivable that they made it up on their own. Nonetheless, the Torah gives
the impression that God is initially only concerned with the manna and its
message of dependence on God, whereas Moshe and Aharon are interested in the
problem which concerns them directly, the misplaced "blame" and responsibility
which the Jews place on their shoulders.
This difference between the message of the quail and the message of the
manna is hinted at even in the language with which Moshe introduces the double
Moshe and Aharon said
to all the Israelites: Evening, and you shall know that God has taken you out of
And morning, and you
shall see the glory of God, when He hears your complaints against God....
As Rashi points out (quoting the Sages), the first verse contains a note
of displeasure, especially when compared to the second. The evening is directed
only to correcting their theological error. The morning, by contrast, contains
an element of religious excitement and uplifting - you shall witness the glory
of God! The Sages state that the evening is "not with a shining face" and the
morning is with "a shining face." Their complaint in terms of food is met
graciously by God in the morning. The evening is not an answer to their
complaint, but only a lesson in who is in charge.
Since there is a difference between God's main concern and Moshe's, the
conversations between them and between them and the people become rather
convoluted. First God speaks to Moshe about the manna (and Shabbat), then Moshe
and Aharon speak to the people, stressing the proper address for their
complaints, then, after they bring the people to the proper address, gathering
them to hear the word of God, God appears and adopts their double plan. Once,
however, the morning dawns and the Jews experience the manna, the primacy of
God's plan is manifest, as the rest of the parasha deals exclusively with the
manna and its ramifications.
I think there are two reasons for the primacy of the manna issue over the
quail issue. The first is that it is genuinely more central, pointing, as it
does, to the main purpose of the exodus - to turn the nation of slaves into the
servants of God. At least in the immediate future, this is crucial, as it is a
precondition for receiving the Torah. The recognition of God's leadership of
Jewish destiny can wait - perhaps until they are about to enter the Land of
Israel and begin political life.
The second reason, which admittedly at least partially contradicts the
first, is that the message of the quail was not absorbed in the short run. The
Jews continued to turn to Moshe as the source of their problems and to accuse
him of responsibility for what happens on the way through the desert. In the
case of the golden calf, this is especially evident -
The people saw that
Moshe was tardy in descending from the mountain, and they gathered on Aharon and
said to him: Arise and make us a god, for this man Moshe, WHO TOOK US OUT OF
EGYPT, we do not know what has happened to him. (32,1)
... he made it into a
molten calf, and they said: THIS IS YOUR GOD ISRAEL, WHO TOOK YOU OUT OF THE
LAND OF EGYPT. (32,4)
This perception of Moshe as the actual leader and decision-maker in the
desert continues to be expressed throughout the events in the desert, throughout
the complaints of Sefer Bamidbar, until the original generation has disappeared.
God's plan turns out to be correct. First one must take Egypt out of the soul of
the Jews; only then can they reach full recognition of God's mastery of nature
and their destiny.
Further points for
It was a long shiur,
but did you notice I neglected to answer part of question 4? Why does Moshe
repeat (v. 8) what had been said one verse earlier by Moshe and Aharon (6-7)?
What is the difference between the two verses and what is the reason for the