The test, and temptation, of affluence
In parashat Ekev, Moses continues his farewell remarks, telling the people that if they obey the commandments, God will bless and protect them. Moses then reminds them of the hardships of the wilderness years and adds, “[God] fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end….”
We might have expected the Torah to say about the manna, “God provided for you” or “God blessed you,” but “in order to test you”? How was manna a test?
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 11th century, France) suggests it means God wanted to discover “[w]hether they will keep the commandments which are associated with it, that they should not leave any of it over, and that they should not go out on the Sabbath to gather.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century, Germany) wrote, “[God said] it is essential that I find men for whom it suffices to be provided for wife and family for each day by itself. Men who can cheerfully and happily enjoy today, carry out their duties for today, and leave the worry for tomorrow to Him Who has provided for today and Who can be trusted for tomorrow. Only such unreserved confidence in God ensures the fulfillment of His laws against infringement out of supposed or actual concern about material necessities.”
And Rabbi Yissocher Frand of Baltimore offered these thoughts:
Everyone knows that life is a test. We struggle to make a living, to raise our children, to build up our communities. Nothing comes easy, and our test is to deal with the hardships and frustrations in the best way possible.
But what if our livelihood were served up to us on a silver platter? How wonderful that would be! No more worries about how to pay for the children’s tuition or the new roof. What if everything we needed came to us like manna from heaven? Would we consider this a test? Hardly. We would consider it a blessing. The Torah, however, seems to say otherwise….
“[The Lord your God] who fed you in the wilderness with manna…in order to test you.” Sforno [Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy] explains that the test is to see if the Jews would still follow the Torah when they do not have to worry about their livelihood.
Yes, there is a great test in “bread raining down from heaven.” Affluence without effort is a dangerous thing. It comes with a great amount of leisure time and freedom of action. What do we do with that leisure time and that freedom of action? Do we use our leisure time and freedom of action to taste the forbidden? This is the great test of the manna.
We are all aware of the test of poverty. We are all aware of the trials and tribulations of being poor. However, says Sforno, affluence also comes with great temptations. It puts a tremendous responsibility on a person. This is the test of the manna, and it is the test for many Jews in these affluent times.
Frand’s explanation makes sense. We have all read stories about people who have won mind-boggling amounts of money in the lottery and yet a few years later they are broke and friendless. Young athletes, actors, and singers suddenly become rich and famous and then find themselves in trouble because of extravagance, addictions, bad friends, and ego.
Our parasha offers this caution: “[B]eware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”