The sea had split. The enemy was drowned. And now the problems began.
The newly liberated nation was stranded in a scorching desert facing an unending landscape of uncertainties. Taskmasters no longer responded to their cries — Hashem did. He responded with protection and shelter on every level. But the Jews were still not satisfied. They were hungry. “If only we had died.. in the land of Egypt. Why did you liberate us to die in the desert? ” they cried to Moshe. (Exodus 16:3 )
Hashem responds with a most miraculous and equally mysterious celestial gift. Food fell from the heavens, but the people accepted it with piqued curiosity. Indeed, the dew-covered matter satiated their hunger, but they were not sure what exactly it was. “Each man said to his friend, manna ! For they did not know what it was.” (Exodus 16:14) The commentaries explain that the word manna is a Hebrew-Egyptian form of the word “what.”
At first, the Torah only discusses the physical attributes of the manna : “it was like a thin frost on the earth.” The Torah continues to tell us that on Shabbos the manna did not fall. A double portion fell on Friday — the extra portion was allotted for Shabbos. In referring to the manna of Shabbos the Torah tells us, “the children of Israel named it manna , and it tasted like a cake fried in honey.” Later, however, the Torah describes the manna ‘s taste differently: “it tasted like dough kneaded with oil.” (Numbers 11:8) Why does the Torah wait to describe the manna ‘s taste until Shabbos? Also, when did it taste sweet and when did it only taste like oily dough?
Another question is before Shabbos people asked, “what is it?” On Shabbos they named the miraculous food — “It is ‘what'” (manna ). Why did the Jews wait until Shabbos to describe concretely the miraculous edible with an official title manna — the ‘what’ food?
In the town of Lomza there was a group of woodcutters hired by the townsfolk to cut down trees for firewood. The strong laborers swung their axes and hit the trees all while shouting a great cry HAH with each blow. The timing had to be flawless. If the cry HAH came a split second early or, a second after the blade hit the tree, it would be a worthless shout that would not aid the lumberjacks at all.
Each year, Zelig the meshugener (crazy), a once-successful businessman who had lost his mind together with the loss of a young daughter, accompanied the woodcutters on their quest. He stood in the background and precisely as the ax hit the tree he, too, shouted on the top of his lungs HAH!
When it was time to get paid, the deranged Zelig also stood in line. “I deserve some silver coins!” he exclaimed. “After all without the chopping would not be as effective!”
The case was brought before the Chief Rabbi of Lomza who looked at the five lumberjacks and then at the meshugener. “Listen carefully, Zelig,” said the Rabbi. He then took 10 silver pieces in his hand and jingled them loudly. They made a loud clanging noise. Then he gave each woodsman two silver pieces. He turned to Zelig and smiled. “The men who gave the labor get the coins, and, Zelig, you who gave the sound, get the sound of the coins!”
Hashem in His infinite wisdom began our lessons in living through our daily fare. The Talmud states that the taste of the manna was integrally linked with the taster’s thoughts. If one thought of steak the manna tasted like steak: if one thought of borscht, the manna tasted like borscht. In fact, the Chofetz Chaim was once asked, “what happens if you think nothing?” He answered very profoundly: “If one thinks of nothing, then one tastes nothing!”
During the week the Jews had the manna but did not realize its great potential. The Malbim explains that is why it only tasted like oily dough. But on Shabbos, a day filled with sweet relaxation, heavenly thoughts filled the minds of the nation. And those sweet thoughts produced sweet tastes!
The Talmud also says that to small children the manna tasted like dough, but to scholars it tasted like honey. For if one thinks of honey, he tastes honey. When one thinks blandly, he has bland taste.
Perhaps on Shabbos the Jewish People realized the important lesson of life. The questions we face should not be addressed as eternally mysterious. We can not face the unknown with the question, “what is it?” Rather, we can define our destiny and challenge our uncertainties. “It is what!” What you put into it is exactly what you take out! Life presents us many opportunities. We can approach those moments with lofty thoughts and see, smell, and taste its sweetness. Or we can see nothing and taste nothing. We can chop hard and reap the benefits, or we can kvetch and enjoy only the echoes of our emptiness.
Text Copyright © 1996 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.