The Torah in Parashat Beha’alotekha tells the story of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, where members of Benei Yisrael complained about the manna, the heavenly food which they were fed in the wilderness, and demanded meat. This story ended in tragedy, with God killing those who made these inappropriate complaints and demands.
In relating this incident, the Torah describes the procedure by which Benei Yisrael ate the manna: “The people would go around and collect [the manna], grind it in a mill, or crush it in a mortar, and cook it in a pot, making it into cakes…” (11:8). As Rashi (11:7) explains, the Torah interjected this description to criticize the people for their complaints, emphasizing that the manna was a great blessing and miraculous gift which they enjoyed each day, and which certainly did not warrant angry complaints and protests.
Commenting on the Torah’s description, Rashi, based on the Sifrei, writes that the people did not actually grind, pound or cook the manna. According to Rashi, the Torah here means that the people would experience any taste they wanted when eating the manna. If they wanted the manna to taste like it was ground into flour and then baked into a cake, then this is precisely what it would taste like. Ibn Ezra, however, explained differently, claiming that the Torah here speaks of the different options that Benei Yisrael had when eating the manna. They could, if they so desired, enjoy it in the form in which they received it, or, they had the option of grinding it into a flour and baking it. A third option was to crush it with a mortar and pestle and boil it in a pot.
Chizkuni advances a generally similar approach, though he attributes the different methods of consumption to the different groups among the people. He writes that the righteous among the nation would eat the manna in its raw form, precisely the way it arrived. The “beinonim” (“moderately” righteous) would process the manna to some degree, either grinding or crushing it into small pieces, whereas the less pious would go through the trouble of baking the manna into cakes. Interestingly, Chizkuni suggests that the mekosheish eitzim – the man found collecting wood on Shabbat, in violation of the Shabbat restrictions, as we read later (15:32) – belonged to this final category. Insistent on baking his portion of manna even on Shabbat, he desecrated the holy day by going out to collect firewood.
Clearly, Chizkuni’s criticism of those who found it necessary to process the manna, instead of eating it plain, must be seen in the context of Benei Yisrael’s unique conditions in the desert, where they were sustained miraculously. As they received supernatural food which fell from the heavens each morning, taking the time to process it according to one’s specific preference, in Chizkuni’s view, reflected a degree of unbecoming pettiness. This certainly does not mean that under normal conditions, we are discouraged from preparing and enjoying food according to our particular preferences.
Nevertheless, Chizkuni’s comments perhaps warn against excessive preoccupation with material enjoyment, and pedantry and inflexibility when it comes to worldly pleasures. Chizkuni’s criticism of those who found it necessary to prepare their manna to their particular taste teaches that there is something inappropriate about paying too much attention to, and investing too much time and effort to, our worldly enjoyment. While we ae certainly entitled and even encouraged to enjoy the world’s blessings, such as fine food, fine clothing and fine décor, we must avoid the tendency to obsess and fret over the particulars of things such as food, attire and furniture. Just as Benei Yisrael encamped in the wilderness around the Mishkan, which stood in the center of the camp, so must our lives revolve around kedusha. This focus does not require self-denial and extreme ascetic measures (which, most often than not, would undermine our ability to properly serve God), but does require us to exercise moderation and to avoid unreasonable fastidiousness when it comes to our material enjoyment. We should be able to enjoy the “manna” God lovingly sends us each day in a variety of different ways, and not be overly discerning or particular when it comes to our worldly delights.