We read in Parashat Beshalach (16:15) that when Benei Yisrael saw for the first time the manna – the miraculous bread which God sent them each morning from the heavens as they traveled through the desert – they turned to one another and asked, “Mann hu?” – “What is it?” The Torah later tells (16:31) that Benei Yisrael named the heavenly food “mann,” presumably in commemoration of their initial reaction upon seeing this mysterious food which they had never before been shown and which they could not identify.
Rav Menachem Mendel of Riminov is cited as offering a creative reading of Benei Yisrael’s question, “Mann hu?” He explained that the manna, which was purely spiritual food originating from the heavens (according to one view, manna is the food eaten by the angels in heaven – Yoma 75b), had a profound spiritual effect upon Benei Yisrael. Eating the manna propelled them to great heights, such that they could no longer recognize one another. And so after eating the manna for the first time, Benei Yisrael asked about each other, “Mann hu” – “Who is this?” Everyone was elevated to great heights, and each person was thus surprised to discover how much his fellow had changed.
What might be the meaning behind this chassidic insight into the manna – that it transformed the people to the point where they asked about one another, “Who is this?”
The manna system is described by the Sages as the ideal form of nourishment, perfectly suited for sustaining a person. It came effortlessly each morning, not requiring any hard work, creativity, ingenuity or risks, and each person received the precise same amount, without the need for competition, thus avoiding all strife and discord. And, the manna was perfectly nourishing, fully satisfying the body’s needs without producing any waste. Rav Menachem Mendel of Riminov perhaps observes that very often, once people are freed from the pressures, hassles and tension of their daily struggles, they are capable of rising to great heights which they had never previously attained. While we are, of course, expected to strive towards greatness and to achieve even under difficult circumstances, in reality, many of us end up stifled by the rigors and hardships of life. Benei Yisrael’s reaction, as Rav Menachem Mendel of Riminov describes, shows us that we would be very surprised to see how much greatness lies beneath the surface within the people around us, but is suppressed because of their daily challenges. If only they received the “manna,” if the burden of pressure would be lifted from their shoulders, they would shine and excel. If we would be able to see our fellowman once he was “fed” the “manna,” released from the pain, troubles and anguish that he currently experiences, we would ask, “Mann hu” – “Who is this?”
If so, then this chassidic reading teaches us a profound lesson about favorable judgment, about recognizing that the flaws we see in the people around us might very well be the result of the heavy burden of stress or anguish that they bear. While we must all aspire to achieve despite such burdens, in our assessment of others we are to acknowledge the harsh realities of daily life that so often lead people to act in ways they wouldn’t if only they received “manna” to relieve them of their pressure and angst.