We learn in this week’s parsha that even before our ancestors came to Sinai, God gave them the mitzva of Shabbat sometime after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds.
In Bereshit, at the very beginning of the Torah, we are told that God finished His work of creation on the seventh day, “and God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.” And in Beshalach, the Israelites first learn that they are to rest and refrain from work on Shabbat in connection with the manna, which God will provide for their sustenance in the wilderness.
They were told — and it was quickly confirmed through experience — that they were to gather the manna each morning, for anything saved over until the next day would spoil. However, on the sixth day, they were told to gather a double amount so that they could prepare and put aside food for the next — the seventh — day, for on that day, no manna would fall.
You may know that this is why we place two hallot on the Shabbat table — in memory of the lehem mishneh, the double portion of manna, that fell on Fridays so that the Israelites could prepare for Shabbat. But there’s much more here.
Shabbat is first taught in connection with the manna because the most basic human need is to acquire food, to work for one’s survival. And yet, as much as the Israelites might fear that taking every seventh day off from the work of food gathering might threaten their survival, they learned that if they turned their backs on God and tried to gather food on Shabbat, they would find nothing. As the Torah teaches in parshat Eikev (Devarim 8:3), “Man does not live on bread alone.”
Slaves have no choice — they are forced to work every day. But free people don’t live to work — they work to live. Manna and Shabbat go together to teach us about balance, about what a person needs to truly live and not just to survive.
There is a time for work — for without work there is no food, no survival — but there must also be a time for Shabbat, a time for rest, for family, for prayer, for friends, a time for reading a novel, taking a leisurely walk, a time for dreaming. We need time to sustain our spirits as well as our bodies.
If this lesson was necessary for our ancestors in the wilderness several millennia ago, it is absolutely crucial today. The technology that surrounds us offers many blessings, but there is a dark side. A 2007 survey reported that some 60 percent of Americans took their mobile devices to bed so they could check e-mails. Some 40 percent responded to e-mails in the middle of the night. Today’s numbers are undoubtedly much higher, with people texting while driving, during meetings, and even in shul. Too many people feel the need to be available to everyone all the time. Turning off the electronics for one day in seven may seem radical, but it brings a blessed sense of freedom.
In the wilderness, our ancestors received a double portion of manna on Friday in order to prepare for Shabbat. Today we still place lehem mishneh on our Shabbat tables. We need to realize that life is a matter of balance and proportion. We don’t live on bread alone. Each one of us must feed both body and soul.