Bread from heaven is a reminder to work, rest and not be greedy

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Exodus 13:17-17:16
Judges 4:4-5:31

“And with the bread of heaven, He satisfied them.” (Psalms 105:40) These words were written by King David in regard to the daily phenomenon of manna descending from heaven for the Jews in the desert. In Beshalach, which features this miracle, there are a number of oddities that bear consideration.

First, it should be noted that the complaints and murmuring of the Jewish people were without justification. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate bread to the full, for you have brought us forth into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

They had, in actuality, plenty of cattle and other food, but were really expressing their anxiety about the future. What they lacked was not food, but faith in the G-d who had so miraculously freed them and demonstrated the power of His protection. In Egypt they may have had enough to eat, but it was the bread of slavery that brought no lasting satisfaction. Now G-d sent them “bread from heaven” that could provide contentment, but which came with certain lessons.

Next, the Almighty ordered, “The people shall go out and gather.” (Exodus 16:4) There was to be no agency charged with the responsibility of collection and distribution. Each man had to gather the manna for himself and his family.

Here is a clear doctrine that to eat one must work. This was a striking idea, expressed in ancient times to a nation freed from Egypt where privileged classes lived in idleness on the labor of their slaves. That all able-bodied should work for the benefit of the individual and the state is actually a biblical teaching.

Next, we observe that the people had to gather a day’s portion every day. They couldn’t collect as much as possible and hoard it. If they did, they discovered that the leftovers became inedible. Here we perceive a warning against the acquisition of more than we need. Also, the daily search for food sent from heaven was a daily reminder of our total dependence upon the providence of G-d. We are all still dependent upon the providence of G-d every day. When we lose this sense of dependence, we fall prey to false pride, self-indulgence and carelessness of the needs of others.

Lastly, the outstanding oddity regarding the manna is that a double portion was provided on Friday and none fell on the Sabbath. We can see here the fundamental difference between the bread of Egypt and the bread from heaven. The former was the food of slavery eaten by one who worked without a break, becoming a human machine who could not call his soul his own, and who ultimately forgot that he had a soul. In the desert a new principle was revealed to Israel and the world.

There was to be a cessation of all work each week on the Sabbath so that the body could be rested and man could contemplate his spiritual nature. This concept, while simple and familiar to us, represented an enormous breakthrough in social progress. Today we all recognize its physical merits even if we fail to appreciate its spiritual advantage.

The Torah doesn’t always get credit for one of its greatest contributions to mankind — the benefit of a weekly rest-day. These doctrines, which came to us from G-d with the manna from heaven, are all still needed today and will always be needed.

This is why Moses told his brother Aaron, “Take a jar and put a measure of manna in it and lay it before the Lord to be kept throughout your generations.” (Exodus 16:33) Sadly, that jar has been lost to us, but its purpose has been kept alive by the inclusion of the biblical chapter related to the manna in the Daily Prayer Book.

We would do well to incorporate these principles into our daily life. We must act so that we daily eat the bread of heaven and thereby find it a source of contentment and happiness.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.