Counting Enough

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog: http://blog.bjen.org/, dated January 23, 2012)

There is something odd, and instructive, about manna.

It was, by all accounts, miraculous. Accompanying the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land, it was not like other food. It did not grow from the earth and it did not fall from the sky (despite the poetic vision of Exodus 16:4) . It appeared after the dew of the morning had worn off on the ground and, if not harvested promptly, vanished into thin air.

It was to be collected and eaten everyday. Hoarding was not allowed. It rotted if left til the following morning, though it lasted two days, from Friday to Shabbat. (Shabbat, after all, was the day of rest and no collecting could be done.)

When first introduced after the miraculous events at the Red Sea, and the sweetening of the bitters waters, Moses instructed the Israelites in what it was and how to collect it:

“It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. 16 This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’”

In teaching this recently, I saw that this law could be confusing. If I take as much as I need, I might require more, or less, than an omer for each person. So I might not be able to gather as much as I need if I gather it by the count. How is the commandment to be fulfilled? By need or by set measure?

Then we are told:

17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little.

This just extends the dilemma. Does that mean the Israelites gathered only an omer for each person? And those with large households gathered their large share of manna and those with small households gathered their small share?

Or does that mean that they gathered according to need and not according to measure? It seems like – through some alchemy – both were true: the gathering was by measure and need.

18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much

did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.

Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.

One possible solution is that the omer was a fluid, flexible amount here and not yet standardized. It might have referred to the amount each person needed to become sated daily, before it got ossified into a straitjacketed measure.

Or perhaps it meant that while a household of nine, say, consumed the total of nine omers, each person in the household ate what they needed, some more and some less. And it all evened out to nine.

Whatever the answer, the story of the manna is food for thought. It is an ethical tale of enoughness. It asks us to be grateful every day for the miracle of food; to guard against selfish hoarding, but know when to save; to count equitably for everyone's needs, but acknowledge our differences; to be mindful of earthly and divine gifts, and share them with each other.

So the question is: how many miracles do we count here? The manna itself? That the omer was a magical measure, bulking up like wheat in water, to fit the stomach it was destined for? That there was an omer for everyone? That there was always enough? That it defeated hoarding and required trust? Or that households, tribes, and the entire Jewish people were able to share, learning to gather just enough to satisfy their needs, and rejoice in this vision of enoughness?

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