We read in Parashat Beshalach of Benei Yisrael’s reaction the first time they saw the manna – the miraculous food which God sent down from the heavens to sustain them each day in the wilderness. The Torah tells that upon seeing the mysterious substance, the people turned to one another and said, “Man hu,” and the Torah then adds, “because they did not know what it was” (16:15).
Rashi explains the word “man” in this verse to mean “food.” In Rashi’s view, the Torah means that the people referred to the substance generically as “man” – “food,” because they could not identify it and they therefore could not call it by its name.
The Rashbam and Chizkuni, however, explain differently, interpreting the word “man” to mean “what.” According to this understanding, Benei Yisrael turned to each other and asked, “What is this?” because they simply did not know what this substance was.
A Chassidic reading of this verse is cited by Rav Elimelech Biderman (Be’er Ha-parasha – Beshalach, p. 19), viewing it as an allusion to the tendency many people have to look down on others. People sometimes look upon their fellow and ask, “Man hu?” – “What is he? What is he worth? What value does he have?” Such people see only the negative qualities and failings of those around them, and they thus ask themselves, “Man hu?” – feeling and showing no respect for them. They feel this way “because they did not know what it was” – they do not bother to look for other people’s admirable qualities and accomplishments, and so they never truly get to know them. As a result, they look at the people around them with disrespect or disdain, asking themselves, “Man hu?” – “What does this person have, and what has he accomplished, that I should respect him?”
It would seem that those who offered this reading were not simply taking a verse out of context, but rather suggesting an analogy between the manna and the people in our lives. We are to view the people around us as our “manna,” as precious gifts sent to us from the heavens to “sustain” us, to help us and to enrich our lives. Although we might be intuitively inclined to look at some of the people around us and ask, “Man hu?” – wondering what they do for us, what value they have, and what benefit they provide, we are to instead respect and appreciate them as “manna,” as valuable gifts. And if at first we do not recognize their value, then we need to look harder and make a greater effort to identify their outstanding qualities, uncover their incalculable worth, and feel and show the appreciation and respect that they deserve.