Parashat Ekev: Why we eat, Why we live

What is the real message of the manna? And how does one live by that which comes from "God's mouth"?

"[God] afflicted you and let you hunger [in the desert], and then He fed you the manna... in order to let you know that not by bread alone does a human live, but rather by that which comes from God's mouth does a human live" (Deut. 8:3). What is the real message of the manna? And how does one live by that which comes from "God's mouth"? Toward the end of Deuteronomy, the biblical text equates life with God Himself: "...Life and death have I placed before you, the blessing and the curse. Choose life… [and life means] to love the Lord your God, to listen to His voice and cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days" (Deut. 30:19,20). Conventional wisdom has it that bread is the staff of life, but this is only part of the picture. Our Torah teaches that it is God alone who allows for human life, which is why it is God who provides the food by which we lived in the desert; so it would be clearly God's gift. To clarify these metaphysical verses, we turn to the earliest manuscripts of Onkelos's Aramaic translation (Targum) of the biblical text, specifically the verse which heads up our commentary: "...Not by bread alone does a human live but rather by that which comes from God's mouth does a human live." Here the Targum explicitly distinguishes between bread - which provides physical subsistence - and God's mouth [words, Torah] which provides for human life, human eternity. Bread is temporal existence; God's words - and gifts - are eternal. Bread exists in the real world and over the course of time it rots and disappears; God's words are eternal - values, ideas and ideals that soar to the heavens and live in time immemorial, far beyond the parchment on which they are recorded. Bread is a thing, an "it," an object that can be gathered and consumed, lost or stolen. In contrast, love is a relationship, a desire to give and reach out beyond oneself, and which lives - and "begets" - beyond the life span of any of those who feel it. God is love, and real love emanates from - and ultimately returns to - the God who gave it. A temple is a building that exists in space, and just as it is constructed, it can be deconstructed, or even worse, burned to the ground. In contrast, Shabbat is a day unto the Lord, a sanctuary in time which bestows a taste of eternity on all those who rejoice in its 25 hours. Manna from God's mouth is beyond physical food. This was the biblical way of teaching Israel how to experience Shabbat, and to help Israel realize that only by recognizing God as the true source of life do we have the opportunity of living life eternal. The second Mishna in the seventh chapter of Tractate Shabbat lists the 39 forbidden physical activities on Shabbat - activities derived from acts involved in the construction of the desert tabernacle, a building in space. A careful reading of these activities reveal the following categories: the process involved in bread production, the process involved in garment production, the process involved in leather production. Food, clothing and shelter - the universal need of all physical creatures. I believe the Mishna wants to teach the legitimacy of pursuing the necessities of life during the six-day work week; however, it is precisely this search for existence, which is prohibited on Shabbat. Shabbat is a day given over to true life, to the eternal values of Torah, love, family and community relationships. Shabbat is a day when we do not get into a car to escape the people closest to us, to avoid looking within ourselves or being present with spouse and children. Shabbat is a day when we refuse to be interrupted by a telephone and its conversations where we speak but rarely truly listen. Shabbat is a day that brings us back to an earlier stage of human development, before SMS - a medium which may inform but doesn't really communicate. It is told that a man was once running back in forth in a frenzy not far from Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. When the rebbe asked why he seemed so agitated, the Jew responded: "I am trying to find the best way to make a living." "Please make sure," cautioned Rebbe Levi Yitzhak, "that in your rush to make a living, you don't lose your life." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.