I spent last week in the wilderness of a silent meditation retreat. Much like the Israelites, I too felt it was at once an endless, arduous journey and an extraordinary spiritual experience. I have been sitting meditation retreats for nearly 10 years, and every time, one of the central experiences is eating. Eating three meals that I don't have to prepare, on a set schedule. Eating food that I have not decided on and trusting I will be sated and cared for. One of the things I noticed last week is that in the early days of the retreat I tend to eat too much at meals, for fear that I will be hungry later when food is not available. But as the retreat went on, I was able to trust that I would have what I need, when I needed it. And that if I didn't, that too would be OK. Questions of sustenance and desire, and whether we will have what we need, when we need it, are some of the core struggles of the book of Bamidbar, and this week's parsha, Be'haalotcha, in particular.
Throughout their journey in the wilderness, the Israelites are sustained by מן / manna. For hundreds of years, commentators have been asking the exact same question that the Israelites themselves ask, "Man hu? -- What is it?" the people ask, "for they did not know what it was." To which Moses answers, "It is God's gift of bread." It is the question, and not the answer, that names the unknowable substance. This manna, this "what-stuff," remains enigmatic. Some imagine it be something akin to oily cakes soaked in honey. Others say it tastes like coriander. Some posit it is shaped like little crystals, or a thin layer of frost. Some posit it was actually a physical manifestation of light that could be consumed. My favorite is the midrash that says that it tasted like whatever each person desired. This is the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory version of manna. And it wasn't just the manna that fell; the Talmud suggests that other necessities fell with it, spices for cooking and precious stones for the mishkan, the list goes on.
Avivah Zornberg writes, "The manna is essential wilderness food, unknown, uncanny; but precisely in its unknowability it will open a new kind of knowledge: 'that a person does not live on bread alone, but on what issues from God's mouth.' The sentence communicates the mystery of the manna: it stirs up the question -- What is it that can sustain human life?" (xvii).
So too on retreat. The meals themselves, more than a means of sustenance, are an opportunity for me to see more clearly my own relationship to desire. In the words of one of the teachers, to see how desire is in some sense a micro-aggression against the present moment. To try to imagine how much trust it would require for the Israelites to go to sleep each night in the barren wilderness and trust that in the morning the miracle of manna would once again fall from the sky so they could collect a day's worth of food. Here I was, knowing with certainty that there would be oatmeal at 6am, and I still worried.
What is it that sustains human life?
There is more to interrogate about the source of that worry and the reality of food scarcity in this world. For now I will say that I left retreat with a tender appreciation for every moment of calm that I have worked hard to experience and for the deep web of relationships that sustain our community.
Wishing you all a happy solstice and shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.