Be-Shalach: "This is a test, but not 'only' a test."

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Shabbat shalom. 

 

We are likely all familiar with the basic story in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, of how G-d provided food for the Israelites during their forty years of wandering in the desert.  

 

Five days a week, the Israelites would wake up to fresh manna on the ground, and they would gather what they needed for that day only.  The amount they gathered on yom shishi, the sixth day -- proved sufficient for two days, since G-d did not provide manna on Shabbat.  

 

If we were asked why G-d ordered this arrangement, I suspect we would focus on Shabbat and relate some version of what I just did.  That is, the reason for the double portion on the day before Shabbat was so that no “work of gathering” would be done on Shabbat, when everyone was to rest.

 

But a focus on Shabbat doesn’t really fit the account of manna given in the Torah.  

 

A little context.  The Israelites had left Egypt six weeks earlier.  They had already accused Moses and Aaron of leading them out of slavery and the “fleshpots of Egypt” only to have them starve in the wilderness.  Now, they were again complaining, saying that in Egypt, they had eaten their fill of bread.  

 

At this point, (Exodus 16:4) G-d says to Moses:

 

הִנְנִ֨י מַמְטִ֥יר לָכֶ֛ם לֶ֖חֶם מִן־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם  וְיָצָ֨א הָעָ֤ם וְלָֽקְטוּ֙ דְּבַר־יֹ֣ום בְּיֹומֹ֔ו לְמַ֧עַן אֲנַסֶּ֛נּוּ הֲילֵ֥ךְ בְּתֹורָתִ֖י אִם־לֹֽא

 

“I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion – that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instructions or not.”  

 

So, the reason for G-d’s daily provision of manna was not only, nor even primarily, to feed the disgruntled people.  Rather it was expressly a test of their faith that G-d would provide enough food every day; as evidence of their faith, they were not to gather more than they needed each day. 

 

So, too, the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac in Genesis, was expressly described as a test.  The waters of Marah, where G-d instructed Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water to create sweet water to drink, was likewise described as a test.  

 

And in Deuteronomy, Moses said that G-d had made the people wander for forty years as a test.  Deuteronomy also warns that whether the people believe signs and portents from self-described prophets and dream-diviners will be a test of whether the people will follow only G-d and His commandments.  Test, test, and more tests. 

 

Rabbi Dr. Nahum Amsel is one of our generation’s leading Jewish ethicists.  In his The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, pages 247-248, Rabbi Amsel writes the following:  

 

One of the purposes of the Torah, the sole purpose, according to the Talmud Kiddushin 21b, was to teach man how to overcome and defeat his desire for evil. G-d sets up all of human endeavor as a moral test for the human being. He presents the moral situations, and it is up to us to react properly and defeat the desire to do bad, as G-d did in providing the manna for the Jews in the desert, which He said was a daily test, as Jews were asked to believe in G-d's promise for daily manna.  If we overcome desire and exercise self-control, then we will get reward, whether it be a slimmer figure when dieting or entrance to the world to come. We can indeed view each act in our lives as a Divine test. Every morning, each adult decides whether to go to work or not. At the breakfast table, we choose to be nice or not nice to our spouse. On the road, we must decide to exceed or not to exceed the speed limit. Children must decide each day whether or not to do homework.

 

In short, Rabbi Amsel teaches, our lives are filled with moral choices, though we usually do not consider them as such.  But we can, and we should. 

 

How can we try to maintain an ethical focus in our daily choices?  Maimonides, in his Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4, suggests that a person view his or her past moral record as fifty-fifty. The next act will be the one that determines if the person will be judged as a righteous person or as an evil person. This way, each action will be given proper reflection and importance. 

 

I would go a step further and suggest that we should welcome these frequent tests.  They purpose our lives as Jews.  They provide daily opportunities to strengthen our character and to set examples to our family, friends, business acquaintances, and, in fact, everyone.  We will inevitably sometimes fail at these tests, both because we are human and because the more moral we become, the higher our standards will become, bringing ever more challenging tests.  

 

But what better goal than constantly striving to be better people, and more G-d like?  That is our daily challenge; to be a Kingdom of Priests and a holy people.  One choice at a time. 

 

For more information about this and many other topics in Torah ethics, I invite you to visit theethicaltorah.com website.

 

Shabbat shalom.  

 

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