The spiritual dimension
Parshat Ekev, Deuteronomy 11:22-11:25
This week’s portion (Ekev) contains one of the most famous phrases in the book of Deuteronomy, although many people might be surprised to find that its origin is biblical. The well-known phrase occurs in a passage detailing the various hardships the Israelites endured throughout their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.
The phrase “man does not live on bread alone” is found amid a list of hardships described by Moses as tests “to learn what was in the hearts [of the Israelites]” and whether they would keep God’s commandments:
“God 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 on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”
With bread referring to the material stuff of life, many lessons have been taught on the important but obvious truth that human beings are not fulfilled by material things alone; there is another, spiritual dimension of life which makes it truly worthwhile. The problem is that when we look at the entire verse, and especially when we look at it in context, it cannot mean that. (Or just that.)
In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut teaches, “There is no question about the broader meaning of the text: God taught you in the wilderness that He could meet your needs by whatever means he chose … This time He sent manna, another time He could choose to care for you in a different way.”
In other words, the people were sustained in the wilderness by God’s providence — in one form or another — for 24 hours a day for 40 years. And, of course, they were continuously forgetting this idea, or ignoring it, or downright rejecting it.
This central tenet of the Hebrew Bible — that God is present at all times, at once abiding within us and outside of us, and greater than the mind can ever expect to fathom — is also the most challenging. The Israelites struggled with it, and so do we. Recognizing this challenge, the rabbis of the Talmud developed the b’rachah (blessing) as a way for us to focus on what is taking place in our lives moment by moment. Rabbi Meir (139-163 C.E.) taught that every Jew should say at least 100 blessings daily. Many of us have likely heard this teaching.
But the words of a contemporary teacher, Rabbi John Rosove are new and may inspire us:
“[There are] many opportunities to collapse the abyss between oblivion and consciousness, God and us, heaven and earth. The b’rachah’s power and significance is that we experience the worlds below and above simultaneously, that we recognize constantly that God is immanent and that the material world is infused with divinity.”
Collapsing the abyss between oblivion and consciousness — sleeping through the day or being fully alive — connects heaven and earth, God and ourselves. One particularly powerful practice is beginning each day with the recitation of the series of 15 blessings that appear at Shacharit (the morning service). These blessings begin with thanking God for giving us the ability to make distinctions — between night and morning, specifically. The rest of the blessings remind us to make connections between what we do in the morning, the power of God and our own obligations and as human beings. For example, we thank God “… who frees the captive,” and we appreciate our ability to stretch and move. We also understand that there are others in the world without this freedom, and we are called upon to work on their behalf.
I would add that these blessings give us an opportunity to open our minds and hearts to the wonders of the world. In the above example, that of “freeing the captive,” we might allow the blessing to challenge ourselves to broaden our knowledge or explore why we hold certain opinions (do they still work for us?). The new siddur of the Reform movement, “Mishkan T’filah,” calls these blessings “Nisim B’chol Yom — [Blessings] for Daily Miracles.” I invite you to remember that our daily lives are filled with divinity. Blessings just focus our attention on that exquisite truth.
Rabbi Sharyn Henry is at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.