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Parshat Ekev 2017
Man does not live on bread alone, said the man who was piling meats and salads on his plate at a wedding reception. No, said a refugee who was given a piece of bread for supper, man does not live on bread alone, but it’s a good start. How differently people can interpret this sentence from our parsha. And how distorted our understanding of it has become because it is usually quoted out of context.
Here is the context: the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness …, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but that one may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”
Now this is a different kettle of fish (to use another food metaphor). The desert is described here, and later in the parsha, as a harsh environment which was intentionally chosen (as if there was a choice) to test the people, to see if they could stay the course. The people were hungry (by God’s will) until they received the manna, after which, we see, they were still hungry!
But this was a different hunger, one that can be interpreted in several ways based on the text. The most obvious is that they were given something to eat that wasn’t in their bubbe’s cookbook. Rabbi Prof. Marc Saperstein mentions that when talking about this sentence in a divinity class at Harvard, a Chinese clergyman wondered whether the Chinese translation shouldn’t be “man does not live on RICE alone” so that the sentence would resonate with his population.
A second interpretation comes from the ending of the sentence. People can live on whatever God decrees we will live on – that’s the option and that’s the challenge. Are we willing to make that effort?
But what really made the manna a hardship, a burden? Here the rabbis are divided. One says because it was scarce. Of course, it was there every morning, as surely as the sun rose, but the Children of Israel received only enough for what they needed for one day at a time. And if by chance they tried to stash it away overnight, it became wormy and smelly. They were in constant fear that they wouldn’t have what to eat.
No, no, no, says another rabbi. That wasn’t the problem. The Israelites eventually figured out that they’d have the manna every morning – but its amorphousness, its lack of personality, it’s lack of sensuousness was what the big problem. Sure, the manna could taste like anything you wanted it to taste like. But like tofu and today’s virtual reality – it was all in the mind, not the body. The real thing is just a bleep in your head. The intoxicating aromas of freshly baked bread or of freshly roasted coffee don’t travel well into the land of make-believe. So yes, they ate, they may even have been sated physically. But they didn’t enjoy it and that’s why it was a burden.
The Israelites are assured by Moshe that when they enter the promised land they will lack for nothing because the land will have everything they need. This seems a bit like oversell. Nothing missing? The way nothing was missing during the austerity days of the 1950s?
And here, perhaps, is where the real message lies. The Israelites did not lack for anything in the desert, in purely objective terms, but subjectively they felt they did. When they came into the country, Moshe promised, they would lack for nothing in purely subjective terms – because they would be satisfied with what they had – even if objectively lots of things were missing.
In other words, the desire for things beyond our grasp is not new. Those who always want more will never be satisfied because whatever they have will never be enough. Sometimes this desire is materialistic (money, property), and other times it is spiritual. Saul Bellow wrote “Henderson the Rain King,” about a pig grower who felt he had to leave his good life in Connecticut to seek himself in Africa.
Kohelet said a person who loves money will never have enough of it. The same can be said of a person who loves knowledge or enlightenment. Should one person’s absorption be criticized because the goal is too materialistic while another’s is encouraged because the goal is considered more acceptable?
Should the goals be measured differently – by how much they benefit the individual and society? Even there we have a problem. A person who is out to make billions may, in the process, provide livelihoods for thousands and hundreds of thousands of other people. The intellectual may be so engrossed in collecting knowledge that he forgets to share it or channel it in a way that benefits others.
The parsha has a partial answer for that too. It doesn’t matter what we seek in life, as individuals or as a society. We must remember that our success, whatever and wherever it is, is not the result of our work alone. The person or society that puts itself above everyone else is setting itself up for a fall. A little humility is in order. Fortunes, like the proverbial ball, are round. Sometimes one side is up, and sometimes the other side is up.
It is especially important that our leaders keep this in mind too. Nobody evades the laws of nature forever.