Joe and I were out for a walk. People are staying at home, as we should, but allowed out for exercise if we keep appropriate distance from others. There was no one else around, so maybe no one else saw it: three squares of toilet paper, still joined, bright white, fluttering down from somewhere, borne aloft on the light breeze and making their way gently to the grass in someone’s backyard.
“Look!” said Joe. “Manna from heaven!”
Where did it come from? Especially when it’s in such short supply in these parts?
A friend in South Africa, when we told him we would be leaving soon and returning to the United States, said, “You’ll experience culture shock. I wonder what will surprise you most.”
During these first two weeks back in North Carolina, as we’ve been getting settled and readjusted, I’ve thought more than once, “Well, in Africa we could get toilet paper.”
I’m mostly trying to be light-hearted about this, and we’re fine. (We found some tissues online, exfoliation-grade, and ordered a case of 30. We didn’t take the last ones, I promise). But it’s funny to think what has become precious and an unexpected wonder when you see it, especially when you aren’t looking for it.
After our walk, we got home and I opened the email with the texts for a sermon I’m assigned to write for Expository Times. It’s for months from now, September 20, 2020, but one of the options for the first lesson is Exodus 16:2-15, the story about, yes, Manna. You can read the story here.
The people complained about having nothing to eat and God gives them Manna. In Hebrew it sounds like the question, “What is it?” The question contained the answer.
What is it?
This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. It’s ancient but it’s current. It’s about people who lived a long time ago and people who have the exact same issues we do. Or at least that I do. This story reminds me to guard against all kinds of stuff that can suck the joy out of life.
First, there’s the risk of missing the wonder around us.
Yes, I know, we are in the midst of a pandemic. There is illness and death and uncertainty and calamity. This is bad. All the more reason to pay attention and look for the wonders.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner recounts this story about people missing wonder. He writes, “Jewish tradition says that the splitting of the Red Sea was the greatest miracle ever performed.” Anyone who was there witnessed “more than all the miracles beheld by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel combined.” However, two of the Israelites, Reuven and Shimon had a different experience.
“Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry. It was a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. ‘What is this muck?’ he asked.
“Shimon scowled, ‘There’s mud all over the place!’
“‘This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!’ replied Reuben.
“‘What’s the difference?’ complained Simon. ‘Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.’
“And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.”
But it’s not long before everyone else joins in the grumbling. We’re only seven short verses past the rousing choruses of dancing and singing and praising God, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously!’ when their stomachs begin to rumble and people start complaining. ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, where at least we had our fill of bread! Did God bring us out here just to starve us to death?!’ Remember all the toilet paper?
God gives them miraculous food in the desert, not because they deserve it, but because God loves them. God causes a dew to settle on the ground, and when the dew lifts, there is a fine, flaky substance. The Israelites ask, ‘What is it?’ It’s bread from heaven, bread not worked for, bread not earned, not deserved—a gift from God. And each day they received exactly as much as they needed, no more, no less.
What is it?
They had to ask. When they saw the “fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground,” they didn’t say, “That’s awesome! God has answered our prayers! Let’s eat!”
They had to ask. And when they did, their leaders had to tell them, “That’s what you were asking for. That’s God’s response to your hunger, your complaint, your fear.” And then the people had to learn how not to hoard the manna, to take just what they needed for each person for each day, and twice as much the day before the Sabbath, when they needed not to go out to gather it. Suffice it to say that they didn’t learn right away. Restraint took some practice. Preparation took some practice.
What is it? I wonder if it’s not just a throw away line, if it’s not just about the people saying, ‘We’ve never seen this before. It’s not what we’re used to. Can we eat it?’
I wonder if this story also gives us the gift of a lens, a good question to ask as we come to each new day and look around: ‘What is it?’
If we start from trust that God is listening, and God is love, and God is generous, and creative, and that this day contains what we need for this day, that God actually does answer our prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ and looked around for it, what wonders would we find? Okay, God, what is it? What do you want me to see? notice? do? gather? leave behind? How are you answering my prayers today?
What is it? It might not be exactly what we ordered. It might not be exactly what we expected. We might need help from others to interpret it.
In the church, for example, we are having to do things in a different way and we don’t know for how long. It’s also possible that we may never just go back to things as they once were. It may be that we get a response to our prayers about how to be church going forward that is different from what we’re expecting, different than what we’re used to. Someone may have to explain it to us, interpret what we see for us: this is God’s response to your hunger, your complaint, your fear.
There will be days when grief weighs heavy and it’s hard to keep our eyes open. Maybe on those days we can ask someone else to tell us what they see. It seems that people are getting good at that, pointing things out, sharing hope, support, and care, even from a distance, and trusting there will keep being enough of that to go around. God’s storehouse is not going to run out of love. There may yet be wonder in this day, sustenance where we least expect it.
 Shemot Rabba 24.1, told by Lawrence Kushner, in Eyes Remade for Wonder: A Lawrence Kushner Reader (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998), 11-12.