(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including…mi'ut ta'anug, minimizing pleasure*…
(Exodus 16:31) …sh'mo man v'hu k'zera gad lavan v'ta'amo k'tzapichit bid'vash… its name is "manna" and it was like coriander seed, white, with a taste like a wafer in honey…
Whenever I think of manna, I think of two stories from our culture separated by thousands of years.
The first is from the Midrash. Since the words that describe the manna are unusual in the Bible (tzapichit appears only here), the rabbis wanted to imagine what manna tasted like – and how it could be eaten virtually every day for forty years without people tiring of its taste and texture. They explained that manna was imbued with the taste of whatever the consumer desired: those who wanted meat tasted meat, those who wanted cheese tasted cheese, those who wanted bread tasted bread. In this way, the same substance nourished a wide variety of people over a long period of time.
The second is from the funny pages, as they used to be called when Al Capp was drawing L'il Abner. He invented a creature called the Shmoo. The Shmoo existed for one purpose only: to bring pleasure to human beings. As the L'il Abner web site notes, "This lovable creature laid eggs, gave milk and died of sheer ecstasy when looked at with hunger. The Shmoo loved to be eaten and tasted like any food desired. Fry a Shmoo and it came out chicken. Broil it and it came out steak. Shmoo eyes made terrific suspender buttons. The hide of the Shmoo if cut thin made fine leather and if cut thick made the best lumber. Shmoo whiskers made splendid toothpicks. The Shmoo satisfied all the world's wants. You could never run out of Shmoon (plural of Shmoo) because they multiplied at such an incredible rate. The Shmoo believed that the only way to happiness was to bring happiness to others."
Two ironies were part of Shmoo lore. The first was the warning given to L'il Abner: it was delivered by Ol' Man Mose (who else but Moses?). The second, more relevant to this discussion, is that the Shmoo became the biggest threat to human existence in history; unlimited pleasure removed the incentive for people to do anything but indulge themselves. Capp wrote them into extinction at the hands of concerned world leaders.
I don't know enough about Al Capp to suggest his Jewish education led him to create the Shmoo, but intentional or not, it completes the story of the manna that begins in the Torah (with the narrative about the people who gathered too much) and continues in the midrash. Too much pleasure is an impediment to desire. And desire – the self- serving yearning for more than you have at hand – is the motivator for progress in the world.
Anecdotally I have taken note of an increasing number of young adults who seem to be in a "holding pattern" in their lives. As college or graduate studies end, they hold fast to a life style that emphasizes comfort and pleasure without a sense of direction or challenge – an emulation of the late sitcom "Friends." A national publication recently featured this phenomenon and included advice from a popular psychologist (always a suspect source, I admit) that included the important insight that an indulged childhood makes for a disappointing adulthood. Children for whom diversions and indulgences are the rule can be seduced by the notion that the goal in life is pleasure. He recommended, in so many words, mi'ut ta'anug.
Torah is the vehicle by which desire and gratification are balanced. Its multi-valanced message serves to moderate our inclination toward indulgence and mitigate our impulse to acquire. Torah is at once manna, consistently meeting our needs, and the anti-Shmoo, continually discomfiting us in our cocoon of comfort.
Before its message can find a way into our souls, there must be some room for something outside ourselves. Our tradition offers various ways to model a control of bodily pleasures through a regimen of diet, a context for sexual activity, and the sanctification and moderation of wine, dance and song. In that restraint, that self- contraction, the path is opened for the wisdom of the Torah to penetrate our lives.
Ironically, perhaps, the addition of a consciousness of Torah to pleasure raises gratification to satisfaction, a much less transitory experience.
How can you practice mi'ut ta'anug? Much against my own nature, I suggest fasting. Our focus on food has made us epicureans, which, in the Talmud's derisive adaptation of Greek, is the word apikoros, someone devoted to self-indulgence instead of Torah wisdom. For more on the custom of fasting, visit www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Minor_Fasts/TO_Minor/Steinsaltz_Repentance.htm.
*Six values in a row include the word mi'ut, meaning, "minimizing." It is worth a moment to speak of asceticism and its place in our lives.
We live in a consumer society. While many people have become expert in exercising self-control over larger or smaller parts of their lives, our restraint is reactive rather than proactive. A dieter responds to excess weight; a person quits smoking in spite of a nicotine dependency; a family reduces expenses because the household budget must be reduced. While the conspicuous consumption of American society may be good reason to examine our self-indulgence, these six values reflect a stream of thought inherent in Judaism that is more Eastern than Western in orientation: acquisitiveness is the enemy of inquisitiveness. An emphasis on things and pleasure interferes with matters of the spirit and enlightenment.
That message is unpopular among the economically comfortable American population. And it is not my goal to upend the benefits of relative affluence by suggesting that your gym membership or subscription to HBO stands between you Torah. (I have both.) But mi'ut is not a limited tactic; it is a way of thinking and a way of living. In kabbalistic terms, I might compare it to tzimtzum, conscious self- contraction, the way in which God made room in this world for something other than God's own Self. The process is global, not local.
Please consider this context in reflecting on this reading.