A big part of the classical American Dream is that anyone, from any background, can become rich. And that still may be so. Up until this generation, there tended to be an upward spiraling in the economic lives of generations within families. We have read stories about break-away, self-made billionaires who were in the right place at the right time with the right skill set or vision. But now we continue to suffer from economic decline, job insecurity, and, for many of us, mandatory furloughs or unemployment.
In living in America during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, some of us have even had the “opportunity” to experience the trials of both wealth and poverty. In parashah Beshalach, the rabbis ask themselves what the Torah means when it says that God gave the people manna, so that the Divine One could “test” them collectively, to see if they “will follow My Torah.” In trying to understand the purpose of “test of the manna,” the sages debate which test is greater – the trial of wealth or the trial of poverty? On the one hand, argue some sages, the trial of wealth brings one into the hands of arrogance. A wealthy person might take too much credit for his or her good fortune and think: “by my power and the strength of my hand,” (and not by God’s blessings), I became rich. Consequently, the test of wealth is more difficult.
On the other hand, different sages thought, “the test of poverty dulls the human heart and doesn’t allow a person to be at one with his soul.” Therefore, the test of poverty is a tougher burden to bear. With rabbis, as with economists, there is always a third hand….
Other sages interpreted the test in a different manner. The Israelites could gather enough manna for their households on six days and then collect a double portion on Friday. However, some of the people went out to gather manna on Shabbat, even though Moses told them there wouldn’t be anything to collect, to see whether Moses’ teaching was
true and correct or whether or not they might pick up a little something extra. These rabbis saw the test of manna as a test of greed. The way we might understand this interpretation of the test of manna today is whether or not we think we have to or we actually want to work all the time in order to thrive and ascend in our work lives.
Along comes Isaac Abarbanel (a 15th century Torah commentator), who asks, “So…what is the test with which God tested them? To give to them food to eat each and every day…? That’s no test, it is loving kindness!” What is The Abarbanel’s point? At first glance, his question does not seem serious. But it is, he continues. Loving kindness can at times be “a trial” — to see if one knows how to use loving kindness for appropriate good; to determine whether one will not rebel from a surplus of food or if one will not become bored from an excess of idleness in eating spiritual food for which s/he does not work and trouble oneself. The Abarbanel sees the test of the manna as this; even when we know, with certainty, that we will be able to sustain ourselves physically, can we possess sufficient spiritual strength not to worry about whether or not we will eat tomorrow.
Certainly, that’s how Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (a 16th century Torah commentator)understands the trial of the manna: “It seems a person ‘will follow My Torah,’ when s/he makes a living that is not through compensation for suffering.” In this way also the Light of Life, by Rav Kook, explains: “Sustenance from Heaven does not need cooking. When a person is free from all worry, s/he ‘will follow My Torah.’”
Through the test of the manna, our Tradition is teaching us not to worry. Spiritual strength is provided for us to absorb on a daily basis. We do have to get out of bed and exert a little
effort to grasp it, just as we do in our work lives. But there is what to grab hold of, both physically and spiritually. We still live in America, where life may have become more challenging, but we are not living in a wilderness that cannot sustain life. Our real challenge is to breathe in the manna of spiritual strength that surrounds us – like snowflakes – which we have in abundance.
May we all inhale together, by learning, loving, and letting the worry go.
Rabbi Aviva Berg