Forty Years and the Manna


Moshe Ben-Chaim




In order to understand God’s objective in creating and providing the manna, we must review the events immediately prior. The Jews traveled to Israel, and God promised its inheritance. No doubts were presented to them regarding their ability to conquer the land. While treading Israel’s borders, the people desired to send spies to evaluate the land. God or Moses did not command this. Moses consented to this, for he desired that they see there is nothing to hide. Moses hoped the Jews would abandon their wish to spy the land upon seeing Moses’ own conviction that all their requests were complied with forthright (Rashi). However, the Jews insisted and spied the land. After their return forty days later, ten of the twelve spies incited a riot. They terrified the people with the spread of a defeatist position; they felt the current inhabitants were invincible, thereby denying God’s word. Along with their heretic opinions and projections, they decided not to take on the conquest.

Due to the Jew’s own fears instigated by the spies, they rebelled against God. This rebellion clearly demonstrated their disbelief in God’s age old promise to Abraham that they would receive the land. The Jews were then sentenced to roam the desert for forty years until the last of the rebellious people perished.


Question: If the Jews simply did not deserve Israel, why didn’t God allow them to reach another land until the sinners died out? What was the reason God desired the Jews to roam the desert for forty years?


I believe the answer is that the crime of the Jews was very base: their conviction of how reality operates was based only on trust in their own abilities, and nothing else. What is amazing is that after witnessing tremendous miracles in Egypt and at the Reed Sea, the Jews still harbored disbelief in God. They felt God wanted to “kill them in the desert”. This confirms Maimonides’ words that miracles leave doubt in one’s heart. The Jews didn’t believe Moses due to miracles. The reason being, miracles lose their significance with their increased frequency. God desired to address the Jews’ disbelief. The method God utilized shows the level of intricacy and depth in God’s system of justice.


God forced the Jews into a situation (in the desert) where they were solely dependent upon Him for their very existence. He desired to train them in the ways of believing His word. God chose to raise the Jews above a simplistic existence. He wished to address their problem by raising them from a reality of self sufficiency (where God plays little or no role), to the true reality where God’s existence is primary in all equations - a reality where God’s word is ‘more real’ than the physical reality the Jews currently banked on exclusively. God accomplished this in a number of ways:



God sustained the appearance of the miraculous manna

The aspect of a miraculous food removed ‘understanding’ from the Jews regarding the manna’s properties. Had He fed them vegetation or animal products; there would be a feeling of familiarity and reliance on the natural procurement of these foods. This would afford security and detract from God’s goal of forcing the nation to rely on Him alone. Therefore He created a “miracle food” which, by its very name “manna” (meaning “what is it”) the Jews could not find any security. It is also something with which “their fathers were unfamiliar”. (Deut. 8:3) This alien feeling about the manna contributed to their feelings of insecurity in themselves, a prerequisite for developing a security in God. We learn from the words in Deuteronomy that people are comfortable with that which their forefathers spoke of. The manna did not carry this sense.



God limited the manna’s “shelf life” to one day

This was done to remove any security in the manna itself. Therefore, the essence of the manna must include temporary shelf life. No emotional security could be attached to it. God decreed the manna would rot on the following day.



God caused it to melt each day as the sun warmed it

Seeing the manna lying on the ground al day would provide the feeling of security; “it is here all the time.” This is another area in which the Jews would have sought security. Security in the physical was their weakness, which until this point caused them to sin. Their need for physical security would have to be redirected to security in God alone.



God doubled the manna’s volume once it was in their homes Friday evening

On Friday, the Jews were commanded to gather enough for that day. Although the manna did not fall on Shabbos, they would have sustenance through the Shabbos. When they did as they were commanded they found that the manna miraculously doubled in size, to sustain them (Exod. 16:5 -Rashi). Their complete confidence would be in God’s word. The manna fell each of the six weekdays with just enough for each day, as God promised. Left over manna would become wormy and rot, to combat self-sufficiency. Not so on Shabbos. Manna leftover from Friday through Shabbos remained fresh. The purpose of this was to force the Jews to believe more in God’s word than in physical reality and their own securities. All the miracles of the manna described above were to engender faith in the word of God. This integral concept of faith in God’s word applies today. We demonstrate this idea by our abstinence in all work on the Shabbos. By doing so, we demonstrate conviction that abstention from work on one day does not threaten our existence and livelihood. God will take care of us, however He does so, even though we may not understand how. 


In Deuteronomy 8:3, we read: “He (God) afflicted you and hungered you and fed you the manna, which you didn’t know and your fathers didn’t know, to show you that not on bread alone does man live, but by all that comes from God’s mouth does man live.”


The word “alone” teaches us that man should live primarily in accordance with natural law. The purpose of the manna was to show that man’s reality - the way for “man to live” - is in the reality of God’s word, “but by all that comes from God’s mouth does man live.” It is clear from this verse that man’s existence in the wilderness for forty years was meant to direct his dependency on God alone. The Rashbam also states this when he says, “ had no “bread in your basket” but your lives were dependent upon Heaven each day”.


We see that God’s multifaceted manna-plan was required to first strip the Jews of their securities placed in the physical and in their own might, and primarily, to permeate the Jews with belief in God. The manna was used to address those areas where man seeks security. Living in the desert for forty years gave the Jews an opportunity to abandon their flawed emotion of self-trust. This was a great blessing. Their initial, corrupt desire to follow only that which was intelligible, was replaced with trust in God: His word, and His system of divine providence.