> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Mayanot

Could You Pass the Manna, Please?

Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near, for God said, "Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt." So God turned the people toward the way of the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds. The children of Israel were armed when they went up from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 13,17-18)

The Hebrew word for 'armed' in the verse is chamushim, which also means one part in five. The Midrash explains (see Rashi) that in truth only one part in five of the Jewish people, – 20% – were willing to follow Moses into the desert. The remaining 80% wanted to remain in Egypt, and they passed away during the days of darkness.

What is more the Torah also informs in the passage quoted, that even the 20% that left were shaky. God had to lead them out of Egypt on a circuitous route so that they wouldn't run back there at the first sign of threatening war.


But how does this make sense? Let's not forget, we are talking about people who clung stubbornly to their Judaism for 210 years in the expectation of being redeemed. They successfully resisted the great attractions offered by assimilation. They must have wanted to leave very badly. They lived through the miracles of the ten plagues, [even the 80% that refused to leave lived through eight] and were fully aware of the power of God. Yet, when the great moment arrived, they either didn't want to leave, or were looking over their shoulder, ready to go back at the drop of a hat!

The answer, of course is simple. It's one thing to await the Messiah, and it is quite another to be willing to put your trust in him and follow him into the desert and an uncertain future. We human beings are very security minded. We do not want to place ourselves in situations where our daily survival depends only on miracles. Our vision of the Messiah is that when he finally comes, we will all be rich and pampered and have fat bank accounts. That is what we call redemption. But are we waiting all this time to leave our comfortable homes and follow God into the desert? What kind of redemption is that?


But isn't this correct? Doesn't the Torah itself forbid the placing of oneself in situations of physical danger? One of the primary rules of Judaism is that we are forbidden to rely on miracles. The halachic authorities cite this rule widely to mandate the consultation of medical advice and treatment and strongly forbid the reliance on miraculous cures; they rule that generally, people must go to work in order to earn a living instead of sitting learning in yeshiva all day and waiting for God to provide. The golden rule in Judaism is that there is no contradiction between belief in God and the need to do Hishtadlus [literally 'effort']. God directs the world by blessing our efforts with success; He does not replace the need to expend the effort. What was wrong with the thinking of the Jews who elected to remain in Egypt till the situation clarified itself?

To gain insight into the issues raised by our question, let us attempt to define what we mean when we term something miraculous. Our Parsha (Ch.17) provides a detailed description of the arrival of the Manna, which was to serve as Israel's staple diet for the next forty years. Let us imagine that we were born shortly before or after the manna began to fall. It was the first food that we became familiar with and it was our daily bread through the majority of our lives. Would we regard it as miraculous in any way, or would we look at it as, "Manna? Sure, that is Jewish food, that's all. Other people eat bread. We Jews eat manna."


But the manna is quite remote. Let's turn to something much more prosaic. Maimonedes (Laws of Learning Torah Ch.3, 10) rules very emphatically that the Torah scholar should not live on charity but go to work to support himself and his family.

An essay on the Parsha is not really a suitable forum for an examination of the halacha regarding this issue of the obligation of the Talmud scholar to earn his own living. But as many people are familiar with this ruling of Maimonedes, and therefore legitimately question the widespread custom of today's Torah scholars to follow the very practice that Maimonedes forbids, and as the issues here are the very ones that lie at the heart of this essay, it is impossible to avoid discussing it.


The following essay is to be regarded as a Hashkafa [philosphy] discussion. Whoever desires to obtain a practical halacha ruling or Psak regarding his own specific situation must always consult the recognized Torah authority who alone is authorized by Torah law to issue such rulings. No one can reach the proper Torah ruling on any difficult issue by reading an essay or looking it up in some Torah book.

Halacha regarding aspects of Torah law that are not fixed into clearly defined patterns by the Torah itself is always evolving. The background to our particular issue is provided by a passage of Talmud in Brachot(35b):

Our rabbis taught, You shall harvest your grains, your wine and your oil. (Devarim 11:14) What does this verse come to teach us [i.e. why does the Torah need to command us to harvest our crops? Wouldn't we do that on our own in any case?] Because it is written, This Book of Torah shall not depart from your mouth; rather you should contemplate it day and night (Joshua 1:8). One could think that we are obligated to interpret this rule literally, and it is indeed forbidden to harvest the crops – that is why the Torah instructs us to harvest our grains etc. – to teach us that the proper way to implement the injunction of never departing from the words of Torah is not to take it literally but rather to understand it as an injunction to go about our ordinary lives in the light of the guidance offered by the Torah's instructions/ This is the opinion of Rabbi Ishmael.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai protested: how is it possible that the Torah should instruct us to plow in the plowing season, plant in planting season, harvest etc.? What will be with the Torah? Who is going to learn it? No, this verse must refer to a period when the Jews are not doing God's will, but when they are, they take the instruction never to depart from the words of Torah literally and their work is done by others, as it is written, foreigners will stand and tend your flocks and the sons of the stranger will be your plowmen and your vineyard workers. (Isaiah 61:5)

Abaye said: many followed the advice of Rabbi Ishmael and were successful, and many followed the advice of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and were not successful. Raba told his students: I plead with you; please do not let me see you in the days of Nisan [the planting month] or in the days of Tishrei [the harvest month] so that the burden of providing for your families doesn't weigh you down the entire year. Raba bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan who spoke for Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai: look at the difference between the Torah of the earlier generations and our Torah! The earlier generations planted themselves in Torah and worked in their spare time, and yet achieved success in both their torah and their work. We plant ourselves in our work and learn Torah in our spare time and are successful at neither enterprise.


Explains Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin in his great work Nefesh Hachaim (Gate 1, 8-9): the issue in dispute between Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai concerns the ideal state of the world and is not a dispute of how to conduct ourselves in the actual world of the present.

In the opinion of Rabbi Ishmael, God never intended the 'many', that is to say, the majority of the Jewish people to immerse themselves in full time Torah learning and therefore the world will never provide the economic resources to enable the multitude of Israel to support themselves without working, even if the world were to attain its ideal state. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai maintains that Jews were given the capacity to actualize such a world if we really wanted; God is willing to offer us the possibility. Our failure to do so is therefore to be understood as not completely doing God's will.


Both sages fully agree that as far as individuals are concerned, whoever is placed by Providence in a life situation that affords him the possibility of learning full time is not permitted to do anything else. They are also in full accord that the world as it is today does not offer the possibility for the majority of Jews to engage in full time Torah study. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was not advocating reliance on miracles which is contrary to Jewish law; he was referring to natural mechanisms. 'Reality' is flexible. The world doesn't have to be the way we find it presently.

Both positions recognize the inherent flexibility of what we term as 'reality.' Not only do they both agree that in the reality we have fashioned today through our own actions the multitude cannot be successful in pursuing a life devoted to pure Torah learning, they also both maintain that we could fashion a reality that permits a lot more devotion to Torah study than the amount that is feasible in the reality of today.

Abaye states the common position in halacha when he says that the 'many' must onduct themselves according to the teaching of Rabbi Ishmael in the world of today, and the 'few' must follow the lifestyle taught by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.


To fully understand this idea of a flexible reality raised by their discussion we must study the world of the desert generation in greater depth.

Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin explains: In the desert generation, God wanted all Jews to be fully immersed in pure Torah study to the exclusion of all other pursuits. The Torah could only be given to the eaters of the manna. To absorb the new culture of Torah God had just given them successfully, the entire generation of Jews that accepted the Torah had to be released from all other earthly concerns aside from Torah study. Thus the desert generation was emancipated from the concerns of food clothing and shelter; God provided everything ready made; there wasn't even a need to shop for anything; the manna fell ready to eat, their clothes were dry cleaned by the clouds which also provided them with shelter.


We look at the manna as miraculous food sent by God to stave off starvation; in actuality it was the particular needs of Torah study that made this desert lifestyle mandatory. God sent the manna so that the Jews could learn, not so that they could eat.

The issue in contention is whether the desert generation can serve as the proper model for ordinary reality. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai felt that the conditions enjoyed by the desert generation reflect the ideal shape of ordinary reality. There is no difference between manna and regular food. God provides both. When there are no fields, He sends manna. When we have a country with vineyards, fields and orchards, he sends the same manna in the form of ordinary food. Jews are the same people in both periods with the same powers and the same duties and obligations. They should worry about learning Torah and serving God, and others will tend to their fields and other physical requirements.

Rabbi Ishmael agrees that there is no distinction between food and manna. However he feels that the ideal state God intended to set up for the Jewish people in Israel cannot be modeled after the desert generation. God wants the Jewish people to spend a small portion of their time on the affairs of this world.


They each derive their positions from the placement of the cherubim on the top of the ark.

The Talmud (Baba Batra 99a) presents a dispute concerning how the two cherubim in Solomon's Temple were oriented towards each other. One position maintains that they were oriented face-to-face, as it is written, the cherubim shall be with wings spread upward, sheltering the cover with their wings with their faces toward one another (Exodus 25:20). The other position maintains that this placement is only descriptive of the cherubim of the Tabernacle in the desert; the cherubim were not face-to-face in the Temple, as it is written, The wings of these cherubim thus spread out over twenty cubits. They stood upon their feet facing the Temple. (2 Chronicles 3:13)

Explains Rabbi Chaim: The Talmud (Yuma, 54a) explains that the cherubim were endowed with the capacity to miraculously mirror the state of the relationship between God and Israel. One of the cherubim represents God and the other one stands for Israel. Their orientation toward one another changes in line with the living dynamics of the relationship between God and Israel. The way they were oriented when the Temple was initiated is representative of the ideal state of this relationship.

Placing them face-to-face reflects Rabbi Shimon bar Yachai's position; the idea that God and Israel should always be fully absorbed in each other without devoting any serious attention to anything else. Positioning them in a way that they are looking away from each other slightly represents Rabbi Ishmael's position; the idea that the mass of the Jewish people has to devote some of its attention to worldly affairs.


But even according to Rabbi Ishmael they were only slightly turned away from one another. Thus Maimonides (Laws of Torah 1,12) speaks about working three hours a day. Even in Maimonides' time it was possible for the Torah scholar to support his family by working three hours a day without relying on miracles. As Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai pointed out, God designed a reality that would allow the average Jew to plant himself firmly in Torah study and manage to earn his living in his spare time.

Rabbi Chaim explains that the only limitation that God placed on reality was the one delineated by the original placement of the cherubim – slightly turned away from each other. Beyond what is implied by this point, reality is totally flexible. If Jews turn away from God, God turns away from the world and reality changes. Instead of needing to work three hours a day, now the Torah scholar will really have to work four. If Jews turn further away, then the average Jew will have to work five. When the average Jew only learns in his spare time, reality changes so that his entire day will be taken up with the needs of earning a living.


Miracles are relative to the way we choose to define reality. The physical world was designed to naturally support Torah study. The amount of time that nature makes available to devote to this activity is totally dependant on our own desire. The manna is the true model of Jewish food even according to Rabbi Ishmael.

It is the responsibility of the Jewish people to preserve the knowledge of Torah. The Halachic authorities following Maimonides already pointed out that even Maimonides would agree that in the world of the present it is impossible to preserve Torah if we send the Torah scholar out to work for his living. We have altered reality to the extent that working for a living takes too much of a person's time and attention. Even a brilliant person could not become a great Torah scholar in his spare time. Thus Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law that tells us how to conduct our lives as Jews, comments (Kesef Mishna, Laws of Torah study 3,10) that every Jewish community is obligated to establish a kolel and support a group that devotes itself entirely to Torah study to ensure the preservation of Torah.


Turning to our own situation, our present historic era starts with the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, due to the mass murder of the religious Jews of Europe, strictly observant Jews constituted a bare 5-6% of the overall surviving Jewish population world wide, and Torah scholars considerably less than half a per cent.

I was privileged to spend part of my formative years learning in the Yeshiva of Lakewood established by the greatest surviving leader of the Jewish people Rabbi Aaron Kotler of blessed memory, and I had the opportunity to serve his son, Rabbi Shner Kotler, of blessed memory, as his driver on several occasions. On one of these occasions he began to reminisce about the situation of Torah learning following the war and he illustrated it with the following story.


When he arrived in America in the forties, he was once on the East Side of New York. There was only one shop that sold Torah books in the entire city of New York at the time, and as he had a few minutes before his meeting he went in to browse. He noticed a book called the Kezos Hachoshen on the shelves, one of the most basic reference works used by Torah scholars, and he took it down and started glancing through it. The owner noticed and strongly advised him to buy it. He told him they surely will never print any of these books any more, as how many people are there left in the world who could possibly require them?

The Torah authorities that survived the war were confronted with the imminent demise of serious Torah study. They decided that Israel was once again back in the desert. We had to receive the Torah anew and reabsorb it from scratch. But as God had already sent it down from Mt. Sinai, this time around "Mt. Sinai" was the Yeshiva and the Kollel, and "the desert" was America and Israel. The generation that must absorb the Torah is allowed to live on the manna. Reality is flexible and bends itself to accommodate Torah needs.

The grandchildren of those survivors are now in the yeshivas established then, and the Kezos Hachoshen has gone through many more printings. The imminent demise of Torah was successfully avoided. Reality stretched to accommodate the requirements of the full time Torah scholars for over fifty years. God came through with the manna. When the world is safe for Torah once again we will no doubt return to the situation described by Rabbi Ishmael. Now that we are once again 'many' with the help of God, no doubt the many will have to go out to work. It is a good sign when the world no longer supports full time Torah learning for the many. It shows that we as a people have returned to normal and regained our strength.

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