Who feeds you manna in the wilderness, which your forefathers did not know, in order to afflict you and in order to test you; to do good for you in your end? (ibid. 8:16)
Question: Why is manna-which fell daily-called an affliction and a test? Ancient Jewish wisdom says that the manna was Heavenly food; it was like the food of the angels. It didn’t produce any waste (i.e. it didn’t need to be excreted) and it had the taste of whatever the eater perceived. Being as the Jewish people subsisted on manna during their forty-year hike in the desert, why would the Torah regard eating it as an affliction and a test?
The Talmud answers, “You cannot compare one who has bread in his basket with one who has none.” One application of this idea relates to Yom Kippur. It is easier to fast when one knows that at the end of the fast there a meal waiting; when one has “bread in his basket.” Concerning manna, it fell daily but the generation of the desert didn’t have “bread in their basket” because they only had enough for that day’s sustenance. They weren’t sure there would be a meal the next day and therefore were never fully satisfied with their daily potion. Even though they had enough to eat, it was considered an affliction because of their inability to be satiated.
The episode concerning the nation’s dissatisfaction with the manna is instructional. The hardship was specifically because it only fell once a day. Therefore, there was always a sense of uneasiness – will the manna really fall again tomorrow? Imagine the following scenario: a couple has a baby girl. After birth, the mother nurses her, and ultimately both parents feed and clothe her. They are emotionally supportive from birth until she graduates from high school. It would seem peculiar if the daughter had a panic attack because she didn’t know if her parents would still love and provide for her when she went to college. In addition to the history of love and compassion between the parents and their daughter, there is also the track record of their having the ability to successfully provide for her. It simply would not make sense for the girl to have anxiety about her parents’ feelings (and ability to carry out those feelings) toward her.
How did the Jews end up having a forty-year trek in the desert? G-d changed the course of nature with His plagues and split the Red Sea. He miraculously protected them with a pillar of fire and clouds and gave them manna daily. We know how G-d felt about the Jews as well as His track record of being able to provide for them. Why, then, weren’t they sure there would be a meal the next day (and consequently not fully satisfied with their daily portion)?
The acquisition of material goods is important to enhance the enjoyment of life. Like financial security, having enough food in the house can ease one’s mind. The problem arises when the individual is done in by the process of acquisition. The aim of enjoyment becomes distorted into hoarding the material itself. No level of security is enough due to the individual’s needs to put more aside; far more than (s)he will ever need. (S)He will never be able to enjoy it because his/her “bread” won’t satiate due to the fact that (s)he thinks (s)he might run out of it. The idea of “saving for a rainy day” is betrayed because the rainy day never comes and the present sunny days are obscured by a fear of “rain clouds.”
How can we avoid this trap? It starts with a deep sense of security independent of material possessions. How does one get that innate self-assurance? Each day take a moment and meditate on the following: “I eat, breath, digest, excrete, and am cognizant of everything around me; these are all gifts from G-d.” We are not cognizant of these gifts when we are healthy. Much prayer is said when a person undergoes life threatening surgery, and when (s)he recovers, (s)he feels his/her prayers were answered. Most people will tell you they feel more spiritual after such hardship and that they are actually more calm after the trauma than they were before.
We don’t need misfortune to achieve tranquility; we simply need to realize how much goodness we receive every day and to think, “why would G-d take that away from me?” Just as the parents loved and provided for their daughter for eighteen years and, therefore, she confidently knew it would continue, so too when we realize how much we have been taken care of from the time we were born until now, why should we think it will stop? It might take a daily moment of meditation to achieve this level of confidence but without it, we might never see the present sunny day because it is obscured by fear of rain.
The Jews in the desert were “afflicted” by the manna, a heavenly food; no amount of it would satisfy them. Some people afflict themselves by putting themselves into the lonely desert of constantly having to have more and are never satisfied. A moment of thoughtful meditation has the ability to take away this affliction and get one to understand that food comes from heaven, not hell. The fault lies not in the bread, but from the trash inside our head.
(Sources: Yoma 74b-75b; Biblical Stories for Psychotherapy and Counseling pp. 114-116)