The first museum in Jewish history can be traced to this week’s Torah reading.
Moses tells Aaron to take a jar of manna and “lay it up before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations” (Ex. 16:33).
All the elements of a museum are there – a historical relic, careful conservation, a message for the future… but why was the main symbol a jar of manna?
Why wasn’t the symbol, for instance, a wheel of Pharaoh’s broken chariot, as a symbol of the discomfiture and defeat of the Egyptian king and his forces?
One could argue that on a superficial level the manna represented the food that was customary at that time, and the jar was an exemplar of the utensils that the Moses generation used. In that sense what was brought into being was a museum of social history.
To have chosen to display a carriage wheel instead, suggests that military and political events were what identified that particular generation and what really determined the course of human history.
The Torah has a different idea in mind, not material but spiritual history. The manna represented faith.
When the Israelites left Egypt the euphoria quickly wore off and the people started asking, “Where are we going? What will we eat?” It is little wonder that the grumbles sometimes turned into open rebellion.
What Moses was proclaiming throughout the time in the desert was the message, borrowing a phrase from the Akedah (Gen. 22), “The Lord will provide!”
God did not take them out of Egypt simply in order to let them wander aimlessly and disappear in the wilderness. The journey would take time, 40 years in fact, but eventually they would get to the Promised Land.
They might not eat a six-star cuisine, but the manna would keep them nourished and provide a range of tastes because it assumed different shapes and tastes as they went.
A people that marched with a jar of manna beside them knew that God would protect, lead and sustain them.