Over the weekend I baked six loaves of bread in three batches. The first was begun on Friday, baked on Saturday. It ended up a sourdough and rye hockey puck. The second batch was plain white bread on Sunday. The third I began yesterday and is currently rising in loaf pans. I’ll bake it in the next hour to make two sourdough loaves. Over two days I did a total of an hour and a half of kneading. My arms are sore. I’ve been pondering why the restrictions of pandemic have prompted bread baking. I do find it reassuring to see that I can take raw ingredients and turn them into something edible. If food supply chains begin to break, easy to store and transport ingredients will be more available than complex pre-made foods. A successfully baked loaf of bread tells me I can survive whatever is coming. There are so many flaws in this causal connection it is laughable, yet this is what is happening on an instinctual level.
When the Israelites were in the wilderness wandering with Moses, there was a span of time where they consumed manna. This was a “bread” that “fell from heaven” each morning and the people collected only what they needed to eat that day. If they collected more than they needed it spoiled before the next morning. Except on the day before sabbath when two days of eating were collected. Many a scholar and scientist has tried to explain (or explain away) the phenomenon described in scripture. I’m less interested in the logistics of the manna showing up than I am in how this daily allotment of resources shaped the people. Scripture says they survived on manna for forty years. They spent all of that time learning to expect food to arrive, and learning not to try to gather and store. They had to take each day individually with no reserve against illness or disaster. I assume that when one person fell ill, others gathered to feed that person. For a people who were nomadic and had to carry everything with them as they moved, this focus on today makes sense. I’ve heard it posited that the Israelites needed this wilderness time to re-learn how to be free people. The generations who had been slaves needed to pass on. Yet I wonder, when they stopped wandering, when the manna stopped, were another forty years required for them to reshape their culture again?
I see the idea posted in a dozen different memes, tweets, blog posts, and articles. It is the idea that during this worldwide crisis we should, as individuals, not spend too much energy thinking very far ahead. I’ve even expressed this thought myself on more than one occasion. It is an important survival mode. Solve today’s problems with today’s resources and leave tomorrows problems for later. I’m in that mode. Each morning lands with its allotment of manna, its bundle of tasks for the day, emotions, energy, brain space, and physical resources in my house. Sometimes the tasks have me acquiring physical resources, other times expending them. Sometimes the emotions flood everything else and the whole day feels like a trip through the Swamps of Sadness. Sometimes I have space to think and wonder how this survival mode is shaping me, shaping my family, shaping the world at large. The longer survival mode lasts, the more it will permanently alter the people who lived through it.
There are advantages to living in the now. This is why it is often taught as a meditation practice. Control over our lives is always tenuous at best and people are happier when they make peace with that reality. Yet it is one thing to consciously choose to relinquish the attempt to control and a different thing to have control (or the illusion of it) ripped from one’s hands. I imagine an Israelite woman pausing in her morning gathering of manna for her day to look at the vast wilderness all around her. Does she open her heart and accept that wilderness, or does she hurry back to her tent to feel safe again? I know I’ve done both, depends on the day. Feelings of safety are definitely one of the things which are in short supply. Sometimes they’re available, other times not. This past weekend I felt like that woman staring out at the wilderness and wondering what happens if one morning the manna just isn’t there. The perilousness of existence loomed large. Which is probably why I focused my eyes on kneading bread.
Give us this day our daily bread. When Christ spoke those words in his sermon on the mount, he was deliberately reminding his Jewish audience of their Israelites-in-the-wilderness heritage. “Daily bread” had deep cultural significance. Daily bread is manna, the gift from heaven that arrives just when it is needed and vanishes when not. Give us this day the things we will need to conquer the challenges of this day.
Because my mind is incapable of seeing a single facet of any thought, as I’ve been writing all of the above I’ve had a running commentary about the importance of planning ahead and being prepared. I’m waxing philosophical about manna and the needs of each individual day, but I’ve been building up my food supplies deliberately so we can hard quarantine for weeks without going hungry. That is the opposite of manna philosophy. It is deliberately seeking a control lever on the world, something concrete I can do to increase my family’s chance of survival. I suppose it is the result of the culture I’ve been raised inside: Exercise faith, rely on God for all things, but also store a year’s worth of food. I’m nowhere near a year’s storage of food, and I’m in a similar state with my attempts to exercise faith and rely on God.
The bread is in the oven now. Hopefully this pair of loaves will be light and fluffy. If they are, some part of me will relax a little because I managed to supply a bit of daily bread. It is not rational, but it is real. As for the rest of this day, I’ve got my allotment of tasks and resources. Hopefully the latter is sufficient to meet the needs of the former.