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Much of this week’s Torah portion is devoted to what transpired to the Jews as they wandered in the desert for forty years, before entering the land of Israel. Part of that focuses on what the Jews ate – mahn – or “manna” as the English translation puts it. There’s a puzzling verse (Deut. 8:3) that says, “And I humbled you and made you hungry and I fed you the mahnŔ This mahn was an amazing food, “bread from the heavens,” that took on whatever taste man desired, and was available to the Jews without any effort on their part. Moreover, the Talmud tells us that together with the mahn, the Jews received precious stones that made them wealthy. Since they had nothing else to eat, in any case, what was the point in “humbling” and “making the Jews hungry” before giving them the mahn? We know from other Torah sources that G-d does not “act like a tyrant.” So, why starve and humble the Jews before giving them the only food that they had in the desert?

It is known that the real purpose of Jewish life – “to make a dwelling place for the King in the lower physical world” – began when the Jews entered the land of Israel. There was where they began to work the land, to “sow and plow,” and to convert the physical world into a place that even the King – the King of Kings, G-d Himself – could “live in” comfortably, meaning reveal Himself spiritually, within the physical realm. However, the preparation for that life already began in the desert. And we know that in order to truly live a life dedicated to that purpose – to creating a dwelling in the lower worlds – man must undergo tests. As it says later in our parsha (Deut. 8:16), “He who fed you mahn in the desert…in order to humble you and to test you, to ultimately benefit you.” It is the tests that we undergo that deepen and cement our commitment to Jewish life – to creating a dwelling place that even the King would be proud of. So, it follows that those tests must have begun even in the desert, before the Jews entered Israel.

In general, there are two kinds of tests – the test of wealth, and the test of poverty. The test of wealth is to remember that even when you have plenty and you are lacking nothing, it was not your own power and your own intelligence that made you wealthy, but rather the blessing of the One above. And the test of poverty is to cling to the rules and dedicate yourself to Torah even when you are lacking some of the basic necessities of life. Both are important tests that deepen our resolve to life according to the Torah, and both are tests that were incorporated into the mahn that the Jews ate in the desert.

On the one hand, the mahn was infinite, like spirituality. It took on infinite tastes and textures, depending upon what man craved and desired at any particular meal. And it left over no waste products; there was no part of it that was inedible. Moreover, it brought in its wake precious stones, as mentioned above. None of this could be said about normal bread, the “bread from the earth” that we eat every day. Normal “bread of the earth” is limited in taste and texture, and we certainly do not expect to find precious stones in the loaves that we buy and eat.

However, the mahn also had a side that was “poverty-stricken,” as the verse says (Deut. 8:16), “He who feeds you mahn…in order to humble you...” The sages said that the poorness came from a lack of satiation; the Jews eating the mahn never felt truly satiated. The Talmud offers two explanations for this. One is that “one who has bread in his basket is not comparable to one who has no bread in his basket.” That is, since the mahn never came down in amounts that were suitable for more than one day, one never had enough mahn in his possession for more than one day. Therefore, he was like one who has no “bread in his basket” – sustenance to last him for some time. And when you only have enough sustenance for one day, you do not feel wealthy, because you are always wondering where your next meal will come from. In this important sense, mahn was the food of the “poor” and humble, and not a sign of wealth.

The second explanation from the Talmud is that, “One who sees what he is eating is not comparable to one who does not see.” Even though the mahn took on all kinds of tastes and textures, it never appeared like the food that it tasted like; it always appeared as mahn. So, even as the Jews ate food that tasted and felt like steak, for example, it never looked like steak. That left them unsatiated.

How was it possible for two such opposite qualities to exist in one object? On one hand, ultimate wealth, and on the other hand, poverty? The wealth is actually easier to understand; since mahn came down from the heavens and was clearly a spiritually based creation, it always remained somewhat above the creation. The income for which we strive in the physical world is normally proportionate to the work that we put into it. Mahn, however came down daily, in specific amounts, without the Jews working for it at all. It was available in equal amounts every day – just enough to last the Jews that day. Yet, it also took on infinite varieties of tastes and textures, as pointed out already. So, the side of mahn that imparted infinite wealth was because it came from the heavens and the spiritual realm, which is infinite. On the other hand, the physical eyes of man were unable to detect the infinity of mahn, since the eyes cannot see tastes and textures.

This, then is how the two opposite qualities came together; in and of itself, the mahn was a spiritual creation that reflected its infinite source even as it came down to the earth. In this sense, it represented ultimate wealth. However, the eyes and senses of man are not attuned to infinity. We can only absorb and understand that which is finite. So, we were unable to “see” the infinity within the mahn. And since we couldn’t see it, we were unable to feel that it was “ours.” Man’s nature is to only be satisfied with that which he can absorb and call “his own.” When we could not take possession of the mahn, because either because there wasn’t enough to last for more than one day, or because we couldn’t really “see” it, we were like poor people. And that’s what resulted in the “poverty” of the mahn – the Jews never felt that they could “possess” it, since it always remained a step and level beyond them.

Now, we can understand the verse quoted above, “And I humbled you and made you hungry and fed you the mahnŔ Apparently, not only did the mahn fail to satiate the Jews, it actually made them hungry. The words of the verse ֓and I made you hungry” – apply to the mahn (according to the commentaries). How could this be? But, the answer is that objects that are limited, like the physical creations of the world, each take on a description and form that we can absorb. We can see, recognize, and accept the creation. But, when a creation is unlimited in nature, such as the mahn was, we do not have the faculties and abilities to “digest” and internalize it. When it comes to an unlimited object, we have no way to grasp and internalize it, so it leaves us “hungry.” We want the unlimited resources that it offers – the unlimited tastes and textures of the mahn – yet we cannot “get a handle on it,” and therefore it leaves us unfulfilled and “hungry.” We want also to be unlimited, but we cannot, and that leaves us thirsting for more…The only way to overcome this kind of thirst and hunger is by going out of our own limitations and existence.

And that is the meaning of the various tests that the Jews underwent, even while in the desert. Even while all of their physical needs were taken care of, the Jews still underwent the tests of wealth and of poverty, by way of the mahn, in preparation for entering the land of Israel. Again, the test of wealth is to withstand the temptation to take credit for our own physical success and plenty, and to attribute it to the One above, for He is the One who blesses us with success. And the test of poverty is to realize that if we are not blessed with plenty, it is our own fault, and not because something is lacking in the One above. And the opposite, we should accept our own suffering in good spirits. Both of the above responses demand that man leave his own limitations behind and realize that he is not the center of the universe, and all that takes place comes from Above. That is the lesson of the mahn.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 4, Pp. 1098-1100 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem