This week’s parsha is full of some of the most memorable scenes in the Torah. We know that the Israelites have now escaped from Egypt, and we see the Egyptians who chase after them destroyed in the Yam Suf. The song we hear celebrates not the death of the Egyptians OR the splitting of the sea, but rather the Israelites’ faith in God AFTER the sea splits.
These miracles are followed by yet another miracle, one that we are quite familiar with: the miracle of the manna. The passage that describes this miracle is somewhat ambiguous. Here’s what it says:
What is ambiguous about this section? It seems clear that God is going to provide food for the Israelite AND that the people must harvest that food on a daily basis. That part is pretty clear. But the ambiguity is in the last part of the sentence: WHAT, exactly, is the test that God is providing to the Israelites?
Think for a moment about what YOU think that test might be.
Our Eytz Hayyim offers a number of possible interpretations of God’s statement. The ABOVE-THE-LINE commentary tells us that there are two interpretations of what the test might be. The first possible test is the very fact that we have to treat the manna a certain way—that is, that we have to gather it each day and not store it, for example. That we have to gather only as much as we need—no more and no less. That interpretation seems to be the most literal understanding of God’s statement “TO SEE WHETHER THEY WILL FOLLOW MY INSTRUCTIONS OR NOT.” And, as we just read, we know that the Israelites fail this test, with some taking more than they need and some taking less. That’s not surprising, given that they had never experienced such a miracle before. The second possible interpretation, according to our Chumash, is that God is deliberately letting the Israelites suffer their hunger so that they can recognize their dependence on Him for sustenance and survival. God’s provision of the manna makes clear that they cannot survive without Him.
These interpretations each have their defenders.
Yet, BELOW THE LINE, which we know is written by HAROLD KUSHNER, we read two or maybe even THREE OTHER possible interpretations. Rabbi Kushner doesn’t tell us which he favors, but he does mention that some scholars think that the test lies in the fact that the people have no choice but to eat the same thing every day. That the manna is actually a DEPRIVATION, and the question is whether the “grumbling” Israelites can be content with it. Here too we know that they fail. And if we think about how we feel about matzah on the sixth day of Pesach, we can probably all relate.
Though Rabbi Kushner offers that explanation, he immediately follows it with another, a second view which is almost the opposite of the first one. There he notes that if people have all that they need without having to make any effort, will they remember to thank God for it? Will they remember, in other words, to be grateful? When we bensch Berkat HaMazon, we are thanking God for what God provides for us. And, beyond food, whether rich or poor, we have an obligation to express our dependence on God. And then Kushner adds another observation, which may or may not be a third interpretation: he notes that it is possible that the test is whether the people will have the faith to trust that the manna will come EVERY DAY, and not just the first day that they experience it. This idea is similar to the very first interpretation that I mentioned—will we trust enough that we don’t try to store it or take more than we need for our “daily bread”?
These are all—both the above the line and the below the line—reasonable interpretations of what God means when he tells Moshe that He is going to test the Israelites. But I want to offer YET ANOTHER interpretation. See what you think. The Israelites are hungry. God provides quail and manna—meat and bread—on a daily basis. They don’t have to do anything except pick it up and eat it. The Israelites, as I mentioned, don’t need to DO ANYTHING. There’s even a double portion on the sixth day to prepare for Shabbat. They don’t need to cook it or work to get it, and there’s nothing else there that they can combine it with. Their needs are taken care of. There’s even a midrash that tells us that the manna was such a miracle that it could become whatever food the person craved at the time.
What would that mean? To me, it would mean that the Israelites—however hard their life in the desert was—have free time. Think about being on vacation. What’s one of the nicest things about being on vacation? Your meals are provided for—and that then leads to free time. Which makes it a vacation. Especially, I’m sure, for those who provide meals and do the attendant work before and after a meal.
So perhaps the test involves that free time. Perhaps the test revolves around what the Israelites DO with that free time. Do they use it productively, to bless God, to pray, and to become a real community? Or do they waste their time with complaints and envy and a nostalgia for the past? I think we know the answer to that question. I guess that’s human nature. But it does make me think about the concept of “free time.” How do we spend it? How do YOU spend it?
I had to get rid of the bowling app on my phone because I played it so much. I realized that I was wasting precious time doing it. I wonder if anyone else here has little habits that lead to lost time. How constructively do we use our time? I know so many people here are volunteers for this shul. Others of you volunteer OUTSIDE the shul—spending time reading to kids, for example, or donating your time to a soup kitchen. MANY of you take care of grandkids, and that is a wonderful way to spend time. And time here in shul—whether it’s a morning minyan, or an evening service–that time is NEVER wasted. So, it’s important to think about whether there are ways that we can improve on how we use our time. Whether there are ways that we can better use our time to serve God and to serve others.
And I am guessing that some of you might be thinking: WHAT FREE TIME? Am I right about that? Maybe you feel that you have precious LITTLE time to do the kinds of things that you wish you could be doing. That you are running from one thing to another. Maybe you envy the Israelites who didn’t have to run to Zayde’s for kosher chicken. Here I think it’s important that all of us ask ourselves what are our priorities. How do we want to live our lives? What matters and what doesn’t? Should we be simplifying? Should we be dropping activities that we have typically done in the past but that no longer serve us? Is it time for us to imagine a different kind of time? What might that look like?
The brilliant Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” These are beautiful words. Let us resolve to learn from the shortcomings of the Israelites who had everything that they needed but failed to recognize it. Let us resolve to appreciate what we have, and to follow the advice of Emerson to guard our precious spare moments. Let us resolve to use those moments wisely—to see them as “the brightest gems.” Let us use wisely the blessings—Especially and Including TIME—that we have.