Part I: Manna is the taste of in between.
It came into being at twilight, moments before the first Shabbat. In the breath between chapter one and chapter two of Breishit, something magical occurs. Ten things are created, things of great consequence and mystery. God had already said וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד – Look! This is so good! – but there were finishing touches yet to be made, wonders and oddities that would only be revealed later, of which one is the manna.
This mysterious substance, likened to clouds and heavenly dust and coriander and your mother’s honey cake, is how God sustained Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. Forty years our people wandered, liminal in space and purpose. We were neither who nor where we were destined to end up; rather we were fully in between. Throughout that in-between time, there was manna, a provision which eludes concrete description to this day. It appeared for collection each morning, like frost. It evaporated in the heat of the day, and was the first example of planned obsolescence: any amount that wasn’t eaten on the day it was collected became rancid overnight. The exception was every seventh day, for which twice as much appeared, in order to obviate the need of collecting any on the day of rest, which both had and hadn’t been invented.
In the interstices between enslavement and freedom, between Egypt and the Promised Land, there was manna. The manna descended day upon day for forty years, no matter where Bnei Yisrael wandered. It remained with them up to the border of the Promised Land. Upon their arrival, the story goes, they were no longer in between.
Part II: Manna is the taste of Shabbat
Manna is associated with the first Shabbat, twice. Recall that when God rests for the first time after having created the world, manna is among the ten magical afterthoughts. The first human Shabbat comes later, in Beshallach. (Long before the Torah comes, incidentally.) Moshe introduces the idea of Shabbat, instructing the people to plan their cooking ahead of time and making the allowance to leave it overnight in this circumstance. The culture of Shabbat develops in part from what we tell ourselves about manna. The double portion of manna becomes the source for having two challot on Shabbat. And the Mechilte d’Rabbi Ishmael teaches us to stay close to family on Shabbat, not go more than 2000 cubits from home, and to have three meals corresponding to the three hayoms in
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אִכְלֻהוּ הַיּוֹם כִּי־שַׁבָּת הַיּוֹם לַיי הַיּוֹם לֹא תִמְצָאֻהוּ בַּשָּׂדֶה׃
And Moshe said: Eat it today, for today is a Shabbat to God;
today you will not find it [manna] in the field.
Although the Torah has yet to be given at this point in the story, one of its central principles is introduced here in connection with manna. Manna and Shabbat become linked in the Jewish imagination. Like Shabbat, manna comes without our effort and without our merit. It is an inheritance that God grants us despite our shortcomings, no matter how little we deserve it.
Part III: Manna is the taste of hope
Manna shows up for the Israelites at a moment of prolonged uncertainty. As the gut churns with questions of what we are doing, where we are going, and whether we are on the right path; as the people wander, err, dissolve and resolve, manna is a constant presence. Manna adapts itself to meet needs both known and unknown: when a person collects too much or not enough, somehow, through some divine alchemy, the amount is made right.
We learn that Moshe instructed Bnei Yisrael to gather an extra omer of manna, to protect as an inheritance for future generations. This was to be held as an eternal reminder of how we were sustained through those years of wandering, so that future generations can see the heavenly bread God fed us as we were being taken out of Egypt.
Perhaps forty years of coriander would grow tiresome; according to Ramban, the manna tasted like whatever the person eating it desired. If that isn’t the taste of hope, I can’t imagine what is.
Part IV: Manna is the taste of the divine
There is a Name for what happens when our needs are met. There is a Name for unknowable things that spring from the generations of light. Manna is the very dust of heaven pouring through the open doors, the grain of shamayim raining down as angel bread. If it happened once, it would be miraculous. That it happened day by day for forty years is beyond miraculous.
Its very daily-ness was a blessing. The Netivot Shalom writes that the manna was a pipeline to the Divine, a way for Bnei Yisrael to remain in close daily contact with God by entrusting their needs to Hashem. In Parshat Breishit, when God exiles Adam and Eve and the serpent from Eden, the humans are cursed to toil for their daily bread, while the snake is cursed to eat dust. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that the abundance of the earth-dust that the snake eats means that it never looks up, never takes note of a higher presence. On the other hand, the Jews’ awareness of their own human needs turns out to be a blessing, for in this awareness, we seek the presence of God. The manna, as the bread of heaven, is representative of the Holy One’s constant presence; the daily posture of seeking allows us to connect with God.
The Sfat Emet expounds on the omer they were permitted to keep as an inheritance for future generations. He teaches that this rem[a]inder is that which is seen through the eye of wisdom: that true freedom comes when the soul is not entangled in the body. The capacity to transcend our physical needs, and to open our eyes instead to the spiritual, is what we learned anew each and every day in the wilderness, and what we pass along to our children today. The manna offered our ancestors a taste of God’s constant presence; its remainder is still with us.