We cannot live without them

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 21:49

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

While the era of the manna was coming to an end, its role in transforming the Jewish nation was still being discussed in the final years of the Jewish sojourn through the wilderness. In the Torah portion of Eikev, Moshe exhorts the Jewish people (Devarim 8:2-3):

“And you shall remember the entire way on which the Lord, your God, led you these forty years in the desert, in order to afflict you to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.”

Ramban takes these two verses and draws a connection between them. He begins somewhat cryptically:

“[The Torah] is saying that [through remembering your days in the Wilderness] you will be able to know that through the performance of the commandments that there is complete goodness, and there will not be ‘a righteous man forsaken, nor his children begging for bread’”

Ramban then introduces his approach:

“For God provided sustenance for you in the Wilderness through great miraculous means, due to you following his commandments”

The sustenance he is referring to was the manna. Ramban expands his insight:

“…that it was a great trial for them, for they did not know [of] any [subsistence] plans for themselves, yet they entered the great Wilderness, which was not a place of bread.”

Why was this done?

“And [Moshe] explained that [God] did this in order to inform you that it is He who preserves the life of man with whatever He decrees; if so, observe His commandments and live”

It would appear, according to Ramban, that the manna was the test, and the passing grade would be the subsequent following of the commandments. The basis for this causal relationship should be understood, as one does not seem to follow from the other.

Moving forward, Ramban explains how the avot, or forefathers, never received any information about the future manna; thus, there was no tradition the Jewish people were aware of regarding this miracle. He then offers a different explanation:

“…that [God] has done with you this great kindness that [even] your holy forefathers did not achieve [by their merits].”

Ramban elucidates, suggesting that even though the forefathers followed whatever God commanded, they were not on a high enough spiritual level that would warrant God sustaining them with something such as the manna. 

The obvious question here is the implication of the lowered status of the forefathers to the current Jewish nation in the desert. A brief review of some of the clear lack of faith exhibited by the Jews in the desert would easily belie Ramban’s claim. 

There is an inconsistency present in this entire line of thinking. It would appear the manna was only formulated to “encourage” the Jewish people to follow the commandments from that point on. Clearly, the presentation of the ideological supremacy of the commandments was insufficient. The avot certainly did not suffer from this problem, and therefore the idea of them requiring the manna would be absurd. And yet, Ramban writes that not receiving the manna was reflective of their lower status in comparison to the Jewish people of the time. How do we reconcile this?

There is one last question that should be asked. What was it about the manna, as opposed to the other miracles (such as the plagues or the splitting of the Red Sea), that would be the phenomenon leading to a complete acceptance of the commandments?

When we look at the other miracles, what they shared in common was the imminent threat to the Jewish people and the subsequent rescuing by God. The normative response to such a salvation is a sense of a debt of gratitude. God saved the Jewish people, and they would do as He says because they were rescued. However, the issue is that over time, the feeling of what was owed would dissipate, and the attachment to the commandments would falter along with it. God chooses a different venue.

The environment of the desert, as presented by Ramban, has an almost experimental feel to it. The Jewish people were being placed in a unique situation, where they would have no access to food. It is important to emphasize that they were not in danger, as there were other paths they could have travelled, all with towns that had supplies. What God was therefore designing was a method to create a specific type of dependency on the part of the Jewish people.

As we know, the idea of being a dependent existence is one that challenges our very core sense of importance. We would like to think we are truly independent, that our decisions are made in a vacuum, and that our ability to survive and thrive is in our hands. While we do exhibit some degree of control, the reality is our existences are essentially dependent. We can only exist because of God. God sought to create this very sense of dependency in the desert. He wanted the Jewish people to experience the idea of a direct dependence on God, where their existences were clearly in God’s “hands”. Creating a means of sustenance via the manna accomplished this objective. 

Why was this so critical? God wanted to teach the Jewish people a foundation of the commandments. A great challenge of the commandments would be for the Jewish people to view them as more than a set of rules. Our very existence as a nation was tied to the Torah. The dependency exhibited via the manna would be transferred to the relationship we were required to have to the Torah. Experiencing this dependency would etch into our consciousness the way we needed to relate to the Torah as a whole. 

This explains the relationship presented by Ramban. Clearly, presenting the philosophical benefits of the Torah was insufficient to ensure the long-term commitment by the Jewish people. The avot, of course, did not have the same challenge, making the manna something unnecessary for them. Ramban is pointing out that while it may be true they did not need the environment of dependence established by God, they were still missing out on something quite remarkable.

Existing in a state where one is acutely aware of one’s dependence on God is an extraordinary phenomenon. Our general state of life puts us in conflict with this ideal, and we must battle our sense of self importance in order to recognize our true relationship to God. The avot may not have had this conflict to the extent of the average person, but it was present. To live an extended period without such a conflict was a tremendous opportunity. Ramban seems to be emphasizing to the reader that while it is true there was a need for the manna “experiment”, one should understand the powerful growth its effect had on the Jewish people as a whole.

Creating a scenario of complete dependence on God made it clear what was on the line when it came to adhering to the Torah. The lesson the manna served then, and should still serve today, is to remind us of how our existence and identity as a Jewish nation is solely dependent on the covenant established through the Torah. The commandments are not mere rules; they are what give us life.