Man Does Not Live on Bread Alone
Yup, you read it correctly—I used the term “man.” It’s the way the JPS Tanakh (Bible) translates Deuteronomy 8:3 from this week’s Parashat Eikev, and it is of course the way we all know the phrase from the King James Bible translation. Why? I don’t touch iconic—especially if I want to get your attention!
The verse comes to say: Without G!D feeding you manna in the wilderness, you would have died. And this is to show you that you need G!D’s help in this world, as the rest of the verse states: “…man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”
In other words, it is not always the physical that sustains us. Often it is the meta-physical, the intangibles, that truly “feed” us in this short lifetime of ours.
Interestingly, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau, wrote about his experiences in the camps and published his thoughts in his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning.
There he wrote the following important words:
Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.
The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her own life.
A religiously-minded individual would say that G!D has given us that meaning through the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Prophets, Writings) and subsequent writings of the Jewish sages. Yet, the idea still holds that human beings do not survive solely on the physical, but truly thrive only when there is something intangible —i.e., a sense of meaning and purpose— in one’s life.
He further claims that each of us has the ability to rise above our circumstances no matter where we are and what we are suffering:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.
They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
And then finally, Frankl posits a very strong critique of modern societies, which are built upon capitalist/ consumerist values. If untempered by religious values, they can evolve into the Social Darwinism that undergirded much of Nazi philosophy:
…[T]oday’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young... and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.
If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer.
Confounding the dignity of man with mere usefulness arises from conceptual confusion that in turn may be traced back to the contemporary nihilism transmitted on many an academic campus and many an analytical couch.
We have heard this quite recently— when various politicians and commentators have tried to convince us that in our current COVID 19 world, “old people” should be sacrificed (and might agree to sacrifice themselves) so that the economy can reopen quicker.
Whether they are outright promoting a kind of “euthanasia by pandemic“ or simply implying the economy is more important than the lives of older persons, these are not Judeo-Christian values.
Shabbat comes once a week to remind each of us that we, and all human beings, have value regardless of our economic productivity. We are called Human BE-ings not Human DO-ings for a reason— to remind ourselves that the essence of our worth is inherent in our aliveness, not in any particular activity we undertake, product we create, or job we perform.
Here is where, once again, the Torah and its values have so much to still teach us in the modern world— even to people who purport to be religious. We human beings are more than the physical, as important as it is to take care of that aspect of ourselves. We are spiritual beings —souls!-- living in physical bodies.
Or as this bumper sticker I once saw proclaimed:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience!
To be happy, to feel fulfilled, to overcome suffering— we need to take care of the spiritual, intangible elements of life. Only thus, do we find true contentment in this world.