Community > Jewish Life > Ekev: The Manna Test

Ekev: The Manna Test

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

And thou shalt remember the long trek along which the Lord thy God hath let thee those forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to put thee to the test to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldst keep His commandments, or not and He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know…Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not; that We might afflict thee, and put thee to the test, to do thee good at thy latter end. (8:2-3, 16)

Both in our sidra (above) and in Exodus (16) the manna is described as a trial or test (nisayon) for Israel. Our commentators have remarked on the unusual nature of this trial. Usually a test or trial is something to be borne, an unpleasant experience or burdensome duty. Abravanel queries:

What test was implied in the provision of their daily bread in the form of manna, with a double portion on the Sabbath eve. Surely this was a great kindness, rather than a test?

Rashi explains this difficulty, in the first context where it appears, in Exodus where the Almighty announced the sending of the manna:

“That I may put them to the test, whether they will walk in My law or not” – to see if they will heed the precepts connected herewith, that they should not leave over, and not go out gathering on on the Sabbath.

The test was not then in the gift of the manna itself but in the instructions accompanying it. The way the Israelites honored these instructions would serve as a pointer to their loyalty to the Divine commands, to see “whether they will walk in My law or not”. But by the same token, surely every precept in the Torah can be termed a test or trial? We may detect, however, in the wording of the text, that the trial had nothing to do with the instructions governing the manna ‘but with the actual enjoyment of the Heavenly food. The life of luxury and ease they would enjoy in virtue of the manna would constitute the greatest trial of all:

“That he might put thee to the rest” when He grants you sustenance, without suffering. (Sforno)

In other words. would the Israelites continue to fear God and keep His commandments In times of prosperity? But we may object to this explanation on the grounds that the diet of manna in the wilderness is represented as a burden. an affliction and not as an enjoyment. Nahmanides suggests a more plausible explanation:

The situation in which the Israelites were placed regarding the manna represented a great trial for them since they entered a desert without food of any sort and with no way out. They were totally dependent on the daily portion of manna which rained down and melted in the heat of the sun. They hungered for it greatly, but bore all their suffering in obedience to God who might have led them through an inhabited route. He chose however to confront them with this trial in order to test their eternal loyalty to Him…

In other words, Nahmanides maintained that the manna constituted a trial for the Israelites owing to its unusual nature. Neither they nor their fathers had known it. It was an unpopular, strange food which was not given them in abundance and could not be stored. Each day was viewed with apprehension by the hungry Israelites who waited expectantly for the manna and were assailed by the doubt that it would not suffice. The author of Ha-ketav Va-ha-kabalah clarifies the meaning of the term “trial” used in the Bible:

God who is all-knowing requires no proof. His trial is rather to prove to the person himself the limits of his own capacities. “‘That I might put thee to the test” means that God will bring man into such a situation which will be able to prove to man himself the extent of his Faith and trust in Him.

The Biur suggests the following approach to our text:

By being placed in a position of absolute reliance on the Almighty for their daily sustenance, they would become habituated to trust in Him and their faith in God would become part and parcel of their nature.

If we understand the manna as symbolizing the dependence of man on His Maker, the two references to the manna at the beginning and end of the passage we first quoted, aptly suit the context, which speaks of the wonderful natural wealth of the land they were going to possess:

For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land a land of brooks of waters, of fountains … a land of wheat, barley … wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills thou mayest mine copper … Beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God. (8:7-11)

We are accustomed to regarding this passage as the classic description of the fertility and other wonderful qualities of the holy land. But we must not ignore its other implication. The Torah sings the praises of the land to emphasize too the moral dangers and pitfalls that such gifts might bring with them.

Although the life of the Israelites in the promised land would no longer be dependent on water being extracted from the rock or on manna dropping from heaven.. nevertheless even the normal rainfall and all the natural gifts of the land were similarly derived from the Creator and not in virtue of their own power and might of their hand.