Following the triumphant exodus from Egypt it is not long before the Jewish people, facing hunger in the desert, begin to complain about their plight. G-d responds by providing ‘mun’, a dew-like substance that would provide all necessary sustenance whilst in the desert for the next 40 years. This was not just a gift, it was also a test of the Jewish people’s trust in G-d as their sole provider. For this reason, one was only allowed to take enough mun for that particular day. Seeking the security of a supply for the week, was seen as undermining one’s true trust in G-d[1].

The purpose of this test was not, evidently, solely for those alive at the time; Moshe relays G-d’s instructions to Aaron to store a sample of the mun in a jar which would serve as a visual reminder of the crucial lessons provided by this test. And many years later Jeremiah, the prophet, pointed to this retained sample of mun when rebuking the Jewish people for their lack of trust in G-d, and consequent refusal to minimise their workload to prioritise their Torah learning and growth.

The message that the mun was intended to convey to its recipients and therefore, by extension, us, was that everything we receive comes from G-d. Ultimately even with all our efforts to try and ensure wealth, sustenance, and whatever else brings us happiness, we can do nothing to guarantee success. The internalisation of this lesson was a crucial pre-requisite for a nation who had received the Torah and whose ancestors would soon be entering the Land of Israel where they would live bound by the ‘laws of nature’ and be required to work the land to produce crops, rather than rely on miraculous food from heaven.

In a sense the message of the mun seems unproblematic – it is an empirical fact that one’s toil in this world cannot guarantee anything. There are people who work all hours of the day and end up with nothing, and vice versa. That which one has worked a lifetime for, can, and often does, disappear in a second. And philosophically, it is clear that G-d as an all-powerful Being can and does determine what we do and not have.

But the practical ramifications of this conclusion are not straightforward at all. If the lesson learnt from the mun is that everything comes only from G-d and not as a result of our own toil and efforts, and that we must necessarily interact with the world around us in such a way, this seems to point towards a rather extreme conclusion – all of our efforts are not only futile but also undermine our true belief in G-d!

In other words, if we follow this chain of thought to its logical conclusion, we should all quit our jobs and sit back and wait for the parcels from heaven to arrive. In fact, maybe even getting in the car to go to the supermarket represents a lack of true trust in G-d!

Aside from the fact that this suggestion seems absurd, it also seems irreconcilable with ‘the Jewish position’ for a number of reasons:

1. We are not allowed, halachically, to rely on miracles. Surely there would be no greater reliance on miracles than expecting all of one’s needs to be provided for without doing absolutely anything to work towards them.

2. A number of the greatest Jewish scholars and Rabbi’s over the ages have, in conjunction with their studies which occupied the majority of their time and energies, worked in order to support themselves[2]. Were they lacking in this most fundamental principle of a trust and faith in G-d?

3. We are actually obligated halachically to support ourselves and families. How can we possibly meet this obligation if the very act of trying to do so undermines our trust in G-d?

4. Finally, the Torah itself explicitly testifies to the fact that we must live in a world of nature where survival comes through hard laborious work. Adam’s punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was to have to work the land from that point onwards to provide food to survive.

Given the strength of these questions, it is clear that a more subtle appreciation of the exact message of the mun in the desert is needed. It is true that we believe everything we receive is by virtue of G-d’s decision to given it to us, rather than the necessary result of our own actions and efforts. Whilst our supernatural existence in the desert expressed this in the most extreme way, we continue to bear testimony to that message with our weekly observance of Shabbos, and year-long refrain from working the land in Israel every 7 years (shmita.) Both of these are expressions of the same recognition – that despite our efforts throughout the preceding six days/years, we owe what we have to G-d.

At the same time, we are obligated to interact with the world around us which is, in essence, a physical one which operates according to the ‘laws’ of cause and effect and nature. Shabbos and shmita itself are experienced one out of seven days/years – for the other six we are expected to utilise the physical world within which we live and be productive within it.

So where does the balance lie between this apparent paradox? Our challenge is to both operate within the world of physicality and nature around us; to toil and strive for our goals in very calculated and sensible ways, and yet at the same time to never lose sight of the fact that ultimately the outcome of all of our efforts is dependent only on what G-d chooses to give us.

For the generation who left Egypt and received the Torah the supernatural was the norm. They had literally experienced G-d’s direct Hand in creation first-hand. The whole exodus from Egypt and subsequent journey through the desert was totally outside of the realm of nature. The impending entry into Israel represented a new and foreign challenge – the challenge of living within, rather, than above nature. Suddenly G-d’s hand would not be openly seen in the same way it had until now. It was for this reason, that the eternal message of the mun was so necessary as a reminder to all future generations, ourselves included, as to the true source of all blessing however hidden it may at times appear. [1] In fact those whom did take more than permitted miraculously found that when they would arrive home they only had the amount they had been told to take. Likewise those who took less still found they had the same quantity of mun as everyone else.

[1] Rashi was wine merchant. Maimonides (Rambam) was supported by his brother until he was lost at sea when the Rambam was 32. From that point on he supported himself as a physician. There are numerous other such examples both further back and more recently of great Rabbi’s finding a means to support themselves whilst studying and writing.

[1] In fact those whom did take more than permitted miraculously found that when they would arrive home they only had the amount they had been told to take. Likewise those who took less still found they had the same quantity of mun as everyone else.

[2] Rashi was wine merchant. Maimonides (Rambam) was supported by his brother until he was lost at sea when the Rambam was 32. From that point on he supported himself as a physician. There are numerous other such examples both further back and more recently of great Rabbi’s finding a means to support themselves whilst studying and writing.

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