July 31, 2021, 22 Av 5781
Torah: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25; Triennial 9:4-10:11
Haftarah: Judges 49:14-51:3
Bread in Our Baskets
In this week’s parashah, Moshe continues to review the experiences of the Israelites in the desert. He makes repeated mention of the manna which God provided the Israelites for the duration of their desert wanderings, each time referring to it as a form of affliction that the Israelites had to endure. As Moshe tells the people, God “fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to benefit you in the end” (Deut. 8:16). In what way was the manna a source of affliction for the Israelites, and how did it serve to test them? The Talmud and midrash, in commenting on this verse, offer insight into the connection between uncertainty and faith, such that even we who have never tasted manna can nonetheless internalize its lessons.
Perhaps the most extended discussion of the manna in the Talmud appears in the context of the laws of Yom Kippur. In the eighth and final chapter in tractate Yoma, the rabbis discuss the prohibition on eating, drinking, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in sexual relations, all of which are based on the biblical injunction to “afflict your souls” on this day (Leviticus 16:29). In trying to understand what afflicting our souls might signify, the rabbis cite other instances in the Torah in which this verb is used. They quote Moshe’s words in our parashah about the manna, which God gave the Israelites in order to “afflict” them. To explain the connection between the manna and affliction, the rabbis quote a proverb that appears at various points throughout the Talmud: “There is no comparison between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not have bread in his basket” (Yoma 74b). Although the Israelites had enough to eat every day, they could not store it in their baskets, because, as the Torah teaches, they could only gather enough manna for one day at a time; anyone who tried to store extra manna for the next day would find that it became infested with maggots (see Exodus 16). The Israelites were like those who did not have bread in their baskets because, as Rashi explains, they were constantly eating what they needed that day and worrying about the next. According to the Talmud in Yoma, it was this uncertainty that constituted the affliction of the manna.
The connection between the manna and uncertainty is further explored in a midrash (Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael, Beshalah, Vayasa 2) in which Rabbi Elazar HaModai explains that the injunction to gather “each day that day’s portion” meant that “a person may not gather on one day the portion for the next day,” except on Friday, when everyone was to gather a second portion for Shabbat. Based on this injunction, Rabbi Elazar HaModai declares that, “He who has enough to eat for today yet says: ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’—Behold he is of little faith, for it is said, ‘In order to afflict you, in order to test you.’” This sage quotes our parashah to argue that the experience of eating manna was not just about affliction, but also about faith. Since the manna could not be stored, the people had to have faith that God would rain down new manna every day. They were paradoxically both living from hand to mouth and living with their entire sustenance contingent on God’s providence. In a sense, then, the manna was less about nourishing the people and more about teaching them how to have faith – which is exactly what Moshe tells them in our parashah: “He subjected you to the affliction of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (8:3). The purpose of the desert experience was to teach the Israelites that they don’t need bread in order to survive; they need only to trust in God.
As a stage in the Israelites’ development, the desert experience—which follows immediately on the heels of the Exodus, when the nation was born—may be compared to infancy. Just as an infant is totally dependent on its caretakers for sustenance, the Israelites in the desert were completely dependent on God. Indeed, the same Talmudic passage in Yoma goes on to compare the manna to breastmilk. In the Torah, the taste of the manna is described as shad hashamen, a sort of rich cream. The Hebrew word shad is also the word for “breast,” which leads Rabbi Abbahu to comment that “just as a baby tastes different flavors from the breast, so too with the manna, every time that the Jewish people ate it, they found in it many flavors” (Yoma 75a). Just as an infant nursing at the breast develops a very close bond with its mother, the Israelites in the desert learned to feel close to God on account of the manna. And just as every breastfeeding infant is ultimately weaned, the Israelites will not subsist on manna forever – as Moses tells them in our parashah, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land…a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack for nothing” (8:7-9).
Like the Israelites, we all experience periods of uncertainty in our lives. But just as the close bond between mother and child is ideally lifelong—lasting far beyond the moment of weaning—we aspire to trust and have faith in God even after we have arrived in the promised land and have ample bread in our proverbial baskets.
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