The Test of a Home that has It All
Tzedakah, charity, is a term that people use to describe assistance that is provided to those who are deprived, who are wanting, and social justice is a term that people use at a time when society includes those who are deprived. It is no small test for those who have to acknowledge reality, to open their hearts and wallets and do their best to help those who do not. As the Torah states (Deuteronomy 15:8): “Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”
And yet, when we read the parasha on this coming Shabbat, we will be presented with a test that is the exact opposite of that which we mentioned above. Hashem, faced with Israel’s lack of food, promised them “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4), to be provided every day “for forty years, until they came to an inhabited land.” And yet, despite the fact that every Jew, rich or poor, could thus go to sleep with the complete confidence that there would be food on his plate the next morning, Hashem stated that the manna would descend from the heavens every day “so that I can test them, whether or not they will follow my teachings.”
What test could the Jews be presented with when they were all experiencing the opposite of “wanting”, i.e. everyone had food on his table every day? What is the test that the Jew is faced with at a time when he has the ability to study, invest time and effort in his spouse and family, does not have to labor for his living and does not have to worry as everyone, large and small, will have plenty to eat?
Much has been written about the nature of the challenge that man is faced with when he has never experienced want for anything. Among the suggestions presented by the biblical commentaries, I would point out the Seforno as one that captures the true nature of this challenge: “So that I can test them, whether they will follow my teachings. This is a situation in which man earns his way without effort. As the Sages of blessed memory have said: ‘the Torah was only given to those who ate the manna.’”
According to the Seforno, the challenge was presented to Israel specifically at a time when they were being served on a silver platter, when they had plenty in their homes. When people suffer, when Israel feels a lack of sustenance, they strive to meet the challenge head on in order to provide for their needs. The events of Hurricane Sandy in the United States and the reactions of the Jewish communities around the country, who moved to assist and aid their brothers and sisters, are a primary example of how people respond to a situation in which they, or others close to them, are wanting.
But what happens when there is no want, when everyone has what they need? How do the Jewish people respond to a situation in which it appears that nothing is missing? Do they strive even then to strictly uphold the values of the Torah? Do they move to reach greater heights, to change and better the world, to assist their neighbors and strangers to the best of their abilities? Perhaps the following story will serve to further illustrate the Seforno’s point. Several years ago, during one of my visits to a certain Jewish community on a Shabbat in early winter, I arrived at shul in the afternoon for Mincha. As a former community rabbi in a small North American community, I knew how difficult this time of year was at shul. People had just finished Mussaf some two hours before, and therefore were not always so forthcoming when it came to coming back to shul to daven again. Moreover, the sanctity of the Shabbat prevents you from calling members of the community to come and complete the minyan. Thus, my surprise was understandable when I found a minyan was already in progress, even at such a challenging time of year. After Mincha, during seuda shlishit, I wondered aloud how the community grappled with the difficulties of 60% assimilation among its members and how it maintained a Jewish school despite the fact that few of the members of the community sent their children there. I will never forget their surprised, and perhaps pitying, looks after hearing my queries, some just nodded and others did not seem at all bothered by any of the issues I had raised. One of the members of the community sitting around the table spoke up and said: “Rabbi, your statistics are surely mistaken. Look how many people are here sitting together for seuda shlishit over bread and sardines!”
That was when I understood the truth behind the verse quoted above, along with the Seforno’s commentary. When your shul is full, you are just not conscious of, or sensitive to, the fact that there are other shuls that are sorely lacking in active members. When it seems that plenty abounds, when so many people come even to Mincha on a wintery Shabbat afternoon, who even notices the thousands that do not come at all?
This is the “challenge” of the manna. When the Jews are blessed with physical plenty, with a steady stream of manna from the heavens, will they continue to strive to fill their spiritual voids, to further their spiritual wellbeing? Will Jews, praying in an overflowing shul, consider all of those who did not arrive at shul, who perhaps never arrive at all? Indeed, the words of the midrash in the Mechilta (the halachic exegesis on the book of Exodus) cry out to every Jew who merits, by Hashem’s grace, a home full and overflowing with tangible and spiritual bounty. “The Torah was only given to those who ate the manna.” Will we be able to meet the challenge of striving for social justice in a world that is full and overflowing with so much bounty and blessing?
Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein - a Tzohar rabbi, is the director of training and placement for Ohr Torah Stone's Straus-Amiel program.