A number of momentous events in the development of the Israelites as a nation are recounted in this week’s parsha. Fleeing from Egypt as slaves; being pursued by Pharaoh and his army; seeing the Splitting of the Sea and the drowning of (Pharaoh and) Pharaoh’s army; complaining about the travails of crossing the wilderness; and, finally, defeating Amalek. I was struck by how negatively the Israelites are portrayed in their first months as a free people. Granted, the text makes it clear that they are an ungrateful lot, having little faith in a God that just rescued them from 430 years of slavery and drowned their oppressors in front of their eyes. Without condoning their complaints, however, I think that they are treated harshly by their ‘parental figures,’ Moshe and Hashem. In receiving the manna to eat daily, Moshe instructs them clearly to take as much as they will eat and not leave any overnight (16:16-19). Some among them do not listen and leave some overnight, only to see the manna become infested with worms (16:20). Moshe immediately gets angry, and Hashem gets similarly angry when some go out on the first Shabbat morning to find their daily manna after being told that Friday’s portion would last two days (16:28).
From a strict standpoint of needing full faith in Hashem – and Moshe by extension – these responses make sense. However, I picture a people who have known nothing but slavery their entire lives, and have eaten on the Egyptian slave-masters schedules. Sforno makes this point when he argues that the transition to eating manna is another way of freeing the Israelites, as they used to eat at the whims of others, like animals (commentary to 16:6). For the first time, they have easily accessible food, more than enough for all of their needs. I would have been curious to see just how this miraculous system worked, and I sympathize with the natural curiosity expressed by those who kept manna overnight and went looking for it each day, as the concept of Shabbat was not a natural one for a slave to immediately understand. In this light, the response from Moshe seems more indicative of a leader who has experienced burnout than anything else, which provides a ready explanation for his father-in-law coming to the rescue in next week’s parsha.
Manna from the sky
Let’s find out how it works
Why the long face?