Manna and Miracles: Lessons from the Desert


After the Israelites’ period in the desert, when they were indoctrinated into a life governed by the will of G-d, they arrived at the border of the “good Land,” as described at length in Devarim 8:7–10. Life in the desert was not an ideal way of life but merely a “series of lessons” that Israel must learn in preparation for entering the Land. 

Life in the Land, one overflowing with bountiful abundance, would be completely different from life in the desert. The contrast between “He afflicted you and starved you” in the desert and the abundance in the Land of Israel is salient. In the sparse desert, the people ate in order to survive, but in the Land of Israel – flowing with water and rich with fruit – they would eat to satiety.

This seems to be an appropriate ending to the chapter: after the desert’s “series of lessons,” the Israelites would – having internalized the awareness that all blessings come directly from G-d and having learned to live a life fully governed by G-d – be worthy of inheriting the Land.

However, it appears that, despite their lengthy desert education, the people of Israel were still not immune to forgetting G-d, and Moshe Rabbeinu saw fit to warn them accordingly. Although G-d had educated the Israelites to place all their trust in Him during times of hardship and crisis, that did not guarantee that they would place all their trust in Him during times of plenty. That is because, when a person is accustomed to receiving bounty in a natural, material way, he is liable to grow arrogant and forget that it is G-d who is bestowing all of this goodness upon him.

Therefore, in the concluding section of chapter 8, Moshe describes the desert period from a slightly different perspective. He describes how terrible it was and how it was fraught with dangers like snakes, scorpions, and lack of water. In those circumstances, G-d was Israel’s benefactor, Who made their journey through the desert possible, brought water out from the rock, and gave them manna.

Thus, according to this concluding section, Israel received G-d’s kindness in the desert, an experience meant to imprint awareness of the Source of all good on their minds and lead them to recognize that everything good comes from G-d: “And you shall remember Hashem your G-d, for it is He who gives you strength to produce wealth” (Devarim 8:18).

In this concluding section, Moshe describes the Israelites’ desert years as a time when G-d provided for all of their needs in a miraculous way. Water flowed from the rock and the clouds of glory surrounded them, protecting them from snakes and scorpions and smoothing the way before them. The purpose of this period was to imbue Israel with the quality of gratitude and to prepare them for the abundance awaiting them in the Land of Israel.

When everything comes to a person directly from G-d, without any effort on his part, he is liable to take everything for granted rather than recognize that this abundance is a gift from Heaven. How can a person be thankful to G-d for saving him from snakes and scorpions when he is wrapped in the protective clouds of glory and has never even seen a snake and scorpion?

For this reason, G-d gave the Israelites the manna. Its purpose was to teach them an important lesson. “Who gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your ancestors had never known, to afflict you in order to test you so that in the end it might go well with you?” (Devarim 8:16). Although the manna was one of the good things that G-d bestowed upon Israel, it had a certain aspect of affliction and trial, and, as such, it prepared Israel for the goodness that they would receive in the future.

How was the manna a trial and affliction for Israel?

The manna was given to the Children of Israel in order to solve the problem of hunger in the desert. In this sense, it is similar to the water that flowed from the rock, which solved the problem of thirst. However, unlike the water, which – although it was produced in a supernatural way – was an ordinary substance, the manna was a new creation whose very existence was miraculous.

The wondrous quality of the manna was a constant reminder of its Divine source. The manna was unknown in the world before this time – “that you did not know and that your forefathers knew not” – and was created for Israel’s needs in the desert. The procedure of collecting the manna was subject to strict rules, unlike usual eating. A specific amount had to be gathered, none could be left for the next day, and twice as much had to be gathered on Fridays. The manna followed Divine rules: it would rot overnight but not on Fridays and, according to the Midrash, no matter how much each person gathered, he would always end up with the same amount. Finally, the people were aware of their dependence upon the manna, which fell anew each day, and only enough for that day (except on Fridays).

The manna’s unique quality complemented the Divine profusion of the clouds of glory. Unlike the clouds of glory, whose purpose was to fulfill the people’s needs completely, to the extent that they were not even aware of the dangers they faced, the manna was a gift that served as a constant reminder of unceasing Divine abundance.

Thus, the manna functioned as a test for Israel. In the plainest sense, it tested whether they would follow G-d’s instructions on how to gather the manna – not to gather more than required for that day, not to leave over for the next day, and not to go out gathering on Shabbat. But the manna was also a psychological test. The people had to be completely, utterly dependent on G-d, having faith that He would bring down manna from the heavens every day, without having any food stored for times of need. The manna forced the Children of Israel into a perpetual state of utter dependence on G-d.

The people expressed their cravings for a richer, diversified menu, complaining about the monotony of the manna and concluded, “We never see anything but this manna!” Ramban explains: “[The people] said, ‘We never see anything but this manna. Even the food we live on is not in our hands, so that we would feel full and satisfied. But we constantly desire it and lift up our eyes to see if it is coming. All we have is our hope for the manna.’ Regarding the nature of this affliction, our Sages (Yoma 74b) expressed the well-known analogy that a person who lacks a loaf in his basket is not comparable to a person who possesses a loaf in his basket” (Ramban, Bamidbar 11:6).

On the one hand, the manna was a gift from above, bestowed upon Israel in G-d’s kindness, which enabled their existence in the desert. But on the other hand, it was a perpetual test, a difficult trial.

As the Israelites stood at the threshold of the Land of Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey, Moshe twice mentioned their time in the desert so that they would not forget the important lesson that they had learned there. The Israelites’ time in the desert taught them to trust in G-d, Who controls and rules all, and to know that everything – both the good and the bad – is governed by Him.

Moshe described the years spent in the desert in two different passages, teaching Israel that there are two realities that may lead a person to stop keeping the mitzvot: either crisis and difficulty, when a person may feel that G-d is not helping him, or even that G-d is afflicting him, or abundance, when a person’s life is so filled with earthly goodness that he may forget the true Source of goodness. 

The manna was an answer to both of these potential states of mind. On the one hand, a person could learn from it that even in times of difficulty and affliction, G-d bestows goodness on humanity. Then he would realize how his life is governed by G-d and understand that G-d was teaching him a lesson through hardship, just as parents educate their children: “For by every word that proceeds out of Hashem’s mouth does [a person] live…” (Devarim 8:3), “And you shall know in your heart that as a father disciplines his son, so Hashem your G-d is disciplining you” (ibid. 8:5). The Children of Israel must remember the lessons learned in their collective “childhood” in the desert, where they “grew up” before arriving upon the border of the Land of Israel with all of its abundance.

On the other hand, manna represented constant abundance, which must not be taken for granted. The manna taught Israel that they were entirely dependent on G-d, and that this would also apply in the times of abundance when they would enter the Land of Israel. Even when they would become people of wealth, they must remember that their wealth comes from G-d: “And you shall remember Hashem your G-d, for it is He who gives you strength to produce wealth” (Devarim 8:8).


Rabbanit Sharon Rimon teachers Tanach and is Content Editor for the HaTanakh website.

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