Manna: The Taste of Freedom

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 12/26/2004

The Taste of Freedom

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

Even before Sinai brings its verbal command to remember Shabbat, the people learn it — through eating. They learn it in the story of the manna. (Exodus 16: 13-30)

This food comes freely. Every day, the manna falls. The people learn to gather just enough to meet their needs for one more day. Any surplus rots away, and reeks of greed or fear.

The manna does not require sweat and toil to bring it forth from a hostile earth, as the ending of the Eden story warned would be the lot of humankind, "all the days of your life." And so it betokens a newly free and playful reconnection with the earth.

With this freely given food comes an even deeper freedom: One day of every seven, the people will not even need to do the light and joyful work of gathering the manna. For on the sixth day, a double portion will appear. On this day, the extra will not rot away. It is the sabbatical portion, to be eaten on the seventh day. And thus no longer must we work "all the days of [our] life" in order to eat. One-seventh of our days, we have been offered a time to make a conscious Eden.

The coming of the manna is the first major experience the people have after their birthing through the breaking of the Red Sea waters. It is the milk of Gods mothering for these newborns.

Indeed, this Shabbat-of-manna betokens the first stage of a peace agreement to end the primordial war between ourselves and earth which began as we left Eden. What started with a troubled act of eating is healed with a jubilant act of eating.

From what historical experience sprang these related myths of Eden and manna/Shabbat? Evan Eisenberg, in The Ecology of Eden, suggests that the Eden story is a sardonic critique of agro-imperial Sumeria and its breakthrough into eating more — from monocrop agriculture.

To the Western Semites, says Eisenberg, the new monocrop Empire was a profound threat not only political and military but economic, ecological, and spiritual.

For Sumeria demanded rigid rules of ownership, with an army to back them up. But the Western Semites had worshipped a God of fluidity, nomadry, small farms and the shepherds wandering to new meadows.

How to deal with the new imperious economics? To imitate it meant to surrender precious values. To ignore it meant to be conquered. Either way, a culture shattered.

The Eden story was a critique: Human beings break through the harmonious rules of how to eat from a friendly earth. The result? Yes, more food, but at the cost of alienation between the earth and human earthlings. The cost of endless toil. The subjugation of women. More births, more labor pains.

But critique is not enough. How can we live our values, caught between the pressure of victorious agro-imperial Sumeria and the path of a grass-roots God?

Shabbat, and the sabbatical year and Jubilee that are its echoes, offered a creative resolution of the impossible dilemma. Through six days, six years, of ownership and accumulation, we can do what the Sumerians do. And then through Shabbat and the sabbatical year, we can reclaim our freedom and our intimacy with a God Who reminds us that no adam owns the adamah, no earthling owns the earth, no human owns the humus.

Shabbat is the world in which as hardworking grown-ups we can experience our child-like playfulness.

No wonder Shabbat comes with a new kind of food the food of a bounteous, unboundaried God. No wonder that Jewish tradition teaches that Shabbat is not only an echo of Eden past, but the foretaste truly a taste — of a higher, more conscious Eden of the future a foretaste of messianic time.

The biblical mind places this story in the context of an empires fall. The stern politics of "Put limits on the exercise of power Control those who would control you!" is intertwined with the joyful politics of community: "Rest, reflect, celebrate!"

As we read the tales of Eden and of manna, we ruefully remember that not once alone, but over and over, individual human beings and the human race as a body choose to leap headlong forward in our desire to control and command. When we do, we find ourselves both more powerful, and more conflicted.

But there is one way to transform this future of greater power and sharper conflict. We can like the Western Semites enter into a deeper journey toward a broader community: We can learn to include more beings in our loving, and learn to pause for more being in our doing.

Today, we - all Humanity — face an Imperial Modernity that goes far beyond Sumeria. More material food, more spiritual hunger. More food, less sharing. Can we invent new forms of community, can we heal the earth and ourselves, can we remind ourselves to rest and reflect, can we taste Eden, Messiah, Shabbat?

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center ( and author of Godwrestling Round 2, among many other books of Jewish renewal.

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