Ostensibly, life in the Sinai Desert during the 40 years between leaving Egypt and entering the Holy Land were years of near- paradisiacal comforts. Imagine arising each morning, and shaking open the corner of your tent to find fresh Manna waiting at your doorstep. Your individualized portion came gift-wrapped in a light layer of dew on each side (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar/Numbers 11). Its taste resembled the sweetest honey-cake, although you weren’t limited to consuming it as-is; this versatile delicacy could be baked, cooked and fried (Shemos/Exodus 16:23). Whatever taste you felt like, you could taste it in the Manna (Midrash Tanchuma, Chukas 19). Whether you were in the mood for meat, fish, a snack or desert—it had everything.
And that’s only the food. Clothing was a non-issue, as your clothing never wore out (Devarim/Deuteronomy 8:4), and the Clouds of Glory would launder and iron them to keep them looking fresh and clean (Rashi ibid.). The Clouds of Glory also flattened the mountains and filled-in the valleys to make our travels more pleasant (Rashi, Bamidbar 10:34), provided a cushiony walking-surface to ensure orthopaedic comfort (Pesikta Rabasi 13), and regulated the air keeping things cool in the heat and warm in the cold (Yevamos 72a).
With all our needs taken care of so luxuriously, all that was left to do was to come to Moshe’s court to study Torah (Midrash Tanchuma, beginning of Beshalach)! Indeed, Chazal (our Sages) tell us: The Torah was given exclusively to those who ate the Manna (Mechilta, Beshalach).
How indeed did it feel to wake up every morning to the smell of fresh Mon? And in what way is being counted among the Manna-eaters a pre-requisite to being a student of the Torah?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s students asked him: “Wouldn’t it have been better for the Manna fall once a year?”
“Let me give you an analogy,” he said. “A king had a son. He gave him a yearly allowance. Once a year, the prince would come to greet his father, the king. [Unhappy with this arrangement,] the king decided to give him a daily allowance instead. Now, the prince would come and visit him every day.
“So too the Jews in the desert, if someone had four or five children, he would be worried: ‘Perhaps the Mon won’t fall tomorrow, and we will all die of hunger.’ This forced them to strengthen their belief in their Heavenly Father.” [Yoma 76a]
This Gemara implies that receiving the Mon as a daily allowance had an element of anxiety: There was no ‘money in the bank,’ and our next meal was never prepared in advance.
Commenting on the verses in the Tochacha/Admonition (Devarim 28:66), “And your lives will hang in the balance; you will fear night and day…” the Talmud (Menachos 103b; Rashi) says, “This [curse] refers to the man who has no land, and must rely on a yearly, weekly, or daily allotment—he never knows what the future will bring.”
In this light, and bearing in mind Rabbi Shimon’s answer to his students, we must ask: Was receiving the Manna Hashem’s greatest present, or, G-d forbid, a curse?
To ascertain if the Earth had recovered from the Flood, Noach sent out the dove to see if it could find dry land on which to nest. She returned with an olive branch in her beak; the trees were visible, but the land was not. The Gemara (Eiruvin 18b) explains the significance of the olive branch:
Said the dove to the Holy One, blessed is He, “Master of the Universe, I would rather my sustenance be bitter like this olive branch from Your hand, than to have the sweetest honey from the hands of flesh-and-blood (Noach sustained the animals on the Ark).”
Why does the dove assume that her sustenance from the hand of Hashem will in some way be bitter, while that from the hand of man will be sweet? And don’t we believe that everything we receive ultimately comes from Hashem, even when ‘the hand of man’ serves as His intermediary?
Quoting the verse (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:16), “Lengthy days on her right side; on her left side—wealth and honour,” the Gemara (Shabbos 63a) explains: This refers to the Torah. The ‘right side’ refers to those who study Torah for the ‘right’ reasons (li-shema); the ‘left side’ refers to those who study Torah, but not for its own sake (she-lo li-shema). The Gemara asks: This seems unfair—those who study Torah for the wrong reasons receive wealth and honour, while the true Torah scholars, who toil in Torah study completely for its own sake, do not? The Gemara answers: All the more so (kal ve-chomer)! They certainly receive wealth and honour, as well as long years in which to enjoy them!
It emerges from here, explain mefarshim, that the wealth and honour awarded the true Torah scholar are fundamentally different than that given to his contemporaries.
There are two people who never have to worry about money: The multi- millionaire, and his son. Their lives, however, differ greatly.
The wealthy magnate doesn’t have to worry about how to pay for his trip to Israel or his kid’s braces, but he’s up at nights wondering what to do with his wealth: How to invest it in order to reap the greatest dividends; and how to protect it from dishonest swindlers, outright thieves, and bad investments.
In contrast, his son sleeps sweetly at night. He takes little interest in the source of his father’s wealth; all that’s important to him is his signature, with which he signs his cheque book.
This is the difference between the wealth of the Torah scholar and that of everyone else. To most of us wealth means lots of money in the bank, cars, houses, and possessions. To the Torah scholar, such wealth can be a two- edged sword; he doesn’t want the time spent caring for and protecting that wealth to detract from his toil in Torah.
Thus, Hashem, generally, doesn’t give the talmid chacham real wealth, ostensibly excluding him from the ‘wealth and honour’ mentioned by the Prophet. He receives his wealth through a kal ve-chomer argument—if others get what they need, he certainly must! If he needs money for a wedding or bar mitzvah—it’s there when he needs it. A bigger house for his growing family?—A great deal comes up out of nowhere, and he buys it for a fraction of its true value. His wealth, by way of analogy, is like the open-ended cheque book—take what you need when you need it, and don’t worry about where the money’s coming from. After all—he’s got a rich Father. [Toldos Yaakov Yosef]
To live such a lifestyle, of course, requires tremendous faith. Not everyone’s cut out to live from day-to-day without worrying about tomorrow, secure in his belief that his wealthy Father in Heaven will take care of him. Most of us need the money in the bank; it’s only those whose lives are completely dedicated to pure Torah study that can function at such a high level of bitachon (faith).
Perhaps this is the ‘bitterness’ of which the dove speaks. Those who receive their sustenance by the hand of man, i.e. a weekly pay cheque, experience an element of sweetness in their earnings. They may work hard, but they know they can rely on their cheque being there at month’s-end to help make ends meet and ensure payments don’t bounce. Those who—like the Torah scholar—rely directly on Hashem, so to speak, for their living, experience the ‘bitterness’ of not knowing. Yet it is a bitterness about which the dove fondly reminisces: Better this bitter twig from You, than sweet honey from others!
And perhaps this helps explain the concept of the Torah being given ‘exclusively to those who ate the Man.’ There was an element of anxiety regarding the Man, to be sure. Yet it is precisely this anxiety that the true Torah scholar must learn to deal with, and appreciate, if he aspires to reach the lofty goal of limud Torah li-shema (Torah study for its own sake).