Parashat Ekev: Life is more than existence

"Not by bread alone does a human being live, but rather by that which comes forth from the Lord's mouth does a human being live" (Deut. 8:3).

"Not by bread alone does a human being live, but rather by that which comes forth from the Lord's mouth does a human being live" (Deut. 8:3). How does the Bible view life - that span which every individual struggles to preserve, yet which is rarely used properly? The sad truth is that no one is quite certain how best to use the time he/she is given, or to what purpose to dedicate it. How best to spend one's life is the question of questions, and one who lives without asking it runs the risk of leaving this world without having lived at all! Apparently the Almighty concluded that the newly freed Israelites were not yet ready to enter the Promised Land; they required a "training" period of 40 years - a complete generation - in the desert, a kind of "trial by fire and ice." "You shall remember the entire journey on which the Lord your God led you these 40 years in the desert in order to afflict you, to test you to know that which is in your heart. Will you keep His commandments or not? He will afflict you and He will make you hungry; He will provide you with manna to eat which neither you nor your ancestors experienced in order to teach you that not by bread alone does a human being live, but rather by that which comes from the Lord's mouth does the human being live."(Deut 8:1-3 ) This experience of the manna was a kind of "time-out" from the Edenic punishment that "by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." On the one hand, God was the beneficent provider of food which the Israelites only had to gather; on the other hand, the Israelites had neither the discomfiture nor the exhilaration derived from the competition, the ingenuity, the sickness of failure and the dizzying satisfaction of success which accompany the back-breaking, tension-producing dedication to farming. Along these lines, the most ancient (and I believe, authentic) version of the Aramaic translation of the biblical text, Targum Onkelos, takes the last words to read "Not by bread alone does the human being exist, but rather by that which comes forth from God's mouth does a human being live." Targum differentiates between the bread necessary for existence and the Word that's crucial to life. For a clearer explanation of Targum's intent, let's study the seventh chapter of Tractate Shabbat, where the Mishna provides us with a list of the 39 prohibited activities on Shabbat (melachot). The Midrash generally assumes that the source of these activities are the acts involved in the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:13). However, one of the prohibited activities is "baking," whereas in the construction of the tabernacle the dye extracts of the plants had to be boiled. The Talmud explains the discrepancy by saying that the Mishna wished to highlight the procedures in bread manufacture; and indeed, when looking at the prohibited acts from this perspective, the entire Mishna prohibits first bread manufacture, then clothing manufacture, then leather manufacture, and finally acts of building. In effect, the Mishna is teaching that the search for food, clothing and shelter - so central to physical existence - is to be eschewed on Shabbat. And the truth is that animals no less than humans also require food, protection from the elements, and shelter. What makes the human being unique is that which goes beyond physical existence - the spiritual spark of God within him/her, the soul, the heart and mind of the human being which enables him/her to give, to communicate with others, to repair and to create. Most human beings spend their lives working for their physical existence, amassing commodities - and the ultimate commodity, money. In the desert they were freed from this pursuit, with the exception of the little time it took to gather the manna, and no one could take more than his/her portion. They could spend their time receiving - and pondering over - God's words, His desire that we share with those less fortunate, God's gift of family and friendship, community and love. The desert experience was a kind of continuous Shabbat, a taste of a more perfect world, when we begin to understand that the real purpose of life is to live by God's words. No wonder, then, that the Hebrew word hayyim, life, is always in the plural - because there can be no meaningful human life without loving relationships. The two yods in the center are a shortened form of God's name, and the external Hebrew letters hm, hom, are Hebrew for the warmth, love, sensitivity and caring which is central for meaningful human activity. I have never met an individual on his deathbed who regretted hours spent away from the office, but most regret the hours they didn't spend with family. People are not remembered for the structures they erect; they are thought about for the lives they have touched. Rav Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once saw a person running to and fro, as if chasing his own tail. "Where and why are you running?" he asked. "I'm running to make a living," came the reply. "Just make sure that in the process, you don't lose your life," remarked the wise rabbi. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.