A friend recently asked me the most basic (and profound) of questions: Why be religious? Like me, he was raised a secular humanist, in a highly cultured, assimilated academic family. While I became religiously observant and have dedicated my life to Torah learning and the Jewish people, including raising my children in Israel, he has remained largely a secular humanist, active in the Unitarian Church in Canada. Nevertheless, we have both always been intrigued by the boundary between what humans can know and do, and what is just beyond human grasp–which I have come to understand as our experience of God.

This week’s Torah portion addresses that very boundary, expressed in perhaps the most famous adage in the book of Deuteronomy: “…for a person does not live by bread alone, but by all that comes from the mouth of God …” (8:3). This expression is often understood narrowly as an exhortation to live for a spiritual purpose, beyond the merely mundane. But that ignores the context of this last speech by Moses, the prophet’s great swan song to the Israelites in the plains of Moab.

Moses will die there, while the people move on to the Promised Land with his disciple Joshua at their helm. In this context, he recalls the unique miracles they have experienced during the forty-year desert sojourn, and urges them to continue to remember their dependence on God’s beneficence even after they settle in the Land, especially the miracle of the manna. It is intended to guard against hubris, so they do not come to say: “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (v. 17).

But how does the manna, “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4) named for the wonder of its falling (“mahn-hu/what is it?” v. 5), teach us that humans cannot live by bread alone? If this miracle was wholly unique to the wilderness sojourn, “which neither you nor your fathers had known” (Deuteronomy 8:3), how can it continue to testify to the eternal truth of God’s providence? Clearly there is something about the confluence of manna, bread, and all that comes from the mouth of God that we need to understand.

The manna might be seen as a means of trial or testing, not only in the sense of pass or fail, but also as trying something out, externalizing or making manifest an experience of God. As the prior verse states: “Remember the long way that Adonai your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to afflict you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (8:2). Indeed, the manna tested their faith in two ways.

In the first, during six days of the week they were to gather this “bread from the sky”, which fell with the dew, just enough for a day, and not leave it over for the next day (Exodus 16:18). Those who did so, “testing” God, found their stored manna infested with maggots (v. 20). From this, they learned that the heavenly bread could not be hoarded. From an enforced hunter-gatherer life style, living hand to mouth, they had to return to an Eden-like state where all was provided for them.

In the second test, two portions of manna fell on the sixth day, which they would gather, leaving the second portion for the Sabbath when they could not go beyond the camp to gather. This manna miraculously did not rot. Yet again, “testing God”, some people went out to gather on the seventh day but they found nothing (v. 27), whereupon they were rebuked but not punished. It is precisely this legal sense of trial—the people testing the authority of the divine word, while God tests their obedience—which the manna comes to signify.

Yet the verb “to try or test [nsh]” can also mean to “have an experience of” in the phenomenological sense. The Israelites, for example, are “tested” at Sinai with the terrifying experience of God’s direct word (Exodus 20:20). Similarly, David before slaying Goliath tries on King Saul’s armor which did not quite fit for he “had no experience [lo nisah]” with it (I Samuel 17:39).

With regard to the manna, it is the trust in divine providence in the wilderness, that howling wasteland, which is externalized in this testing of the people. The manna that fell with the dew from the skies, found encrusted as frost on the ground in the morning, is the prism through which we come to understand the Israelites’ relationship with the Divine. It teaches them about their dependence on God for sustenance, and the difference between profane and sacred time (with the double portion on the sixth day, miraculously preserved on Shabbat). In its form, it also represents the nexus between physical nourishment and ephemeral origins. Like ambrosia, it brings the heavenly into mundane experience.

From being the means of feeding this wandering people, manna modulates into a metaphor of spiritual sustenance–to live not “by bread alone, but by all that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3). A memorial to the manna persists in the Tabernacle and the Temple precincts, a jar of it kept within the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 16:33-34). Furthermore, the two challot served on Shabbat meals in traditional Jewish homes symbolize the double portion that fell on the sixth day during the desert sojourn. We thus both memorialize that experience of Divine providence in the manna, and continue to reenact the difference between mundane and sacred time that it represents.

As for the question “Why be religious?”: In yet a third sense, the “bread from heaven” serves as a call to radical amazement. It represents the boundary between flesh and spirit, between language and the horizon of the word. The very name betokens wonder: “What is it?” In the words of the great 20th-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.” In this sense, manna both facilitates and represents the experience of God, reminding us of the limits of human consciousness. Preserved in a jar beside both the broken and whole Tablets of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies, it reminds us of divine providence, warning us against hubris and the presumption that we have gained our material comfort solely by our own hands.

Rachel Adelman, PhD is an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew College.