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B’shalach 5764-2004

“The Malbim Teaches the Lessons of the Manna”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, the freed Israelite slaves experience the fullness of G-d’s glory as the walls of water at the Sea of Reeds split, and the people march through safely on dry land. An unrepentant Pharaoh, his chariots and his soldiers are drowned in the sea. The Israelites, led by Moses and Miriam, sing Az Yashir, the great song of salvation, praising G-d for His miracles. Hence, the name for this Shabbat, Shabbat Shirah–the Sabbath of Song.

Despite the miraculous rescue that the Israelites experience, the people soon test G-d. The Talmud in Arachin 15a & b lists ten trials that the people tested the Al-mighty after the exodus. The first test occurred at Marah when the people complained that the waters were bitter. Through miraculous intervention, Moses sweetens the water.

Not long after Marah, the people journey to Elim. There the entire assembly of the children of Israel once again complain against Moses and Aaron. They say (Exodus 15:3): “Mee yee’tayn moo’tay’noo v’yad Hashem b’eretz Mitz’rayim,” If only we had died by the hand of G-d in the land of Egypt, as we sat by the pots of meat, and ate bread to satisfaction. Why did you take us out to this wilderness to kill this entire congregation by famine?

The Al-mighty responds to Moses saying (Exodus 16:4): “Hin’nee mahm’teer lah’chem leh’chem min hah’shah’may’im,” Behold I shall rain down for you bread from heaven. Let the people go out and collect each day’s portion on its day, so that I can test them to see whether they will follow my teachings or not.

Soon after, a layer of dew descends on the earth, and behold upon the surface of the wilderness was something thin, exposed, thin as frost. The children of Israel saw it, and said to one another (Exodus 16:15): “Mahn hoo,” What is it? Moses tells them that it is the food (manna) that G-d has given them to eat. He then commands the people to gather an omer of manna for every person in their household. When the people gather the manna, they discover that no matter what they collected, they had exactly an omer. Moses warned the people not to leave any manna overnight, until in the morning. But of course, the people did not obey and the leftover manna became infested with worms.

On the sixth day of the week (Friday), Moses told the people that since tomorrow is a day of rest (Shabbat), they should gather a double portion and to keep it until the next morning. Miraculously the manna did not rot. As would be expected, the Torah tells us (Exodus 16:27) that on the seventh day, some people still went out expecting to gather manna, but they could find none.

One of the most fascinating modern commentators on scriptures is Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim (1809-1879). Known as the Malbim, he was a leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia and a prodigious and original scholar. Recognized for his brilliance while yet a child, the Malbim nevertheless lived a very difficult life. Because of the modern style of his writings, he was looked upon with suspicion by the Chassidim. The anti-religious, Maskilim, originally mistook him to be one of their own. But they soon learned to fear the power of his tongue and pen, and used every method available to persecute him.

Students of Torah generally rely on the classical bible commentaries for the basic interpretations. Rashi (1040-1105), the Ramban (1194-1270), and the Ibn Ezra (1089-c.1164), all provide penetrating analyses of the text, and a fundamental elucidation of the religious, legal and philosophical issues of the scriptural verses. Later commentators all rely on these earlier classical commentators.

There is a perceptual difference between the early commentators and the later commentators. When one studies the commentaries of the Malbim however, one is left with the impression that the Malbim belongs to the earlier school, despite the fact that he lived many hundreds of years later. His insights are so penetrating, his textual instincts so erudite, and his linguistic analysis is so exceptionally brilliant, that one would have to conclude that his are the words of a Rishon–an early commentator, rather than an Acharon–a later commentator.

In his commentary on the Torah, the Malbim presents seven lessons that we may learn from the manna.
1. The key to our economic well-being is entirely in the hands of G-d.
2. “Bread” is of heavenly origin, not of earthly origin. The essential nutrients of the human being are spiritual. Contrary to popular belief, a human being subsists not on the physical bread, but upon that which comes out of the mouth of G-d.
3. Human beings should not be obsessed with the desire to amass wealth, for He who gives life, gives sustenance. While every person needs to make the effort, sustenance is designated for everyone. He who makes the effort will soon find the reward.
4. One who has what to eat today and says “What shall I eat tomorrow?” is a person of little faith. G-d tests the human being, and makes certain that those who follow His Torah will receive their sustenance.
5. We learn from the manna that anything holy needs preparation.
6. Every human being’s economic status is predetermined in Heaven, except for his expenditures on Shabbat, that are limitless.
7. By honoring the Sabbath, the other six days will be sustained properly.

It’s interesting to note that the Malbim expresses such profound faith in G-d’s sustenance, despite the fact that he himself endured great difficulties in his own personal life. His early marriage to a wealthy man’s daughter ended in divorce. After remarrying, he was appointed to the prestigious position of Chief Rabbi of Bucharest, but was slandered by his enemies and accused of being a foreign agent. He was soon sentenced to death by court marshal, and was saved only by the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore who rushed from London. The Malbim however was eventually banished from Romania.

After the Bucharest affair, the Malbim had a few years of respite, when his wealthy father-in-law passed away leaving him a substantial estate in Lintshitz. Unfortunately, the Jew his family hired to help manage the estate turned out to be an unscrupulous swindler and the Malbim and his family were left penniless.

Forced to return to the rabbinate, this time in the White Russian city of Mohilov, the Malbim once again was persecuted by his enemies. Again as a result of slander he was forced to leave all of Russia within 48 hours.

And yet, the legacy of the Malbim endures. Not only endures, but prevails. His commentaries shine brightly, luminescent in their extraordinary brilliance.

Perhaps, there is no greater lesson that we could learn from the manna than the lesson that we learn from the life of the Malbim, who truly believed, and lived with the belief, that all sustenance is a gift from the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.