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May HaKadosh Barukh Hu have mercy upon His people and upon His land.
Friday, 19 Av 5774 – August 15, 2014
In one of the more famous verses in Parashat Eikev, Moshe explains to Benei Yisrael that God sustained them for forty years in the wilderness with nothing but manna, “in order to teach you that a person can live not only on bread, but rather on anything dictated by the Lord” (8:3).
The plain meaning of the verse is that Benei Yisrael’s miraculous means of sustenance in the wilderness demonstrates God’s unlimited capabilities. As Moshe proceeds to discuss, Benei Yisrael would soon be crossing into Canaan where they would develop an agrarian society and be sustained through their efforts and enterprising initiatives. The experience of the wilderness was vital in order for them to recognize that even when they produce their food from the earth, sustenance ultimately comes from God, as evidenced by the sustenance He provided as they traveled in an undevelopable wilderness.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary, delves deeper into the message conveyed by Moshe in this verse. Moshe speaks here of “lechem,” a term which, though frequently used as a generic reference to food, denotes specifically bread, a product – and symbol – of human ingenuity, the ability of mankind to harness raw natural elements to create something far more refined. Moreover, the word “lechem” closely relates to the word “milchama” (“war”), because, as Rav Hirsch explains, one’s livelihood is “‘wrested’ from Nature and the competition of your fellow men.” One must wage “war” against the harsh elements and competitors for their yield in order to sustain himself, and thus livelihood is referred to in almost militaristic terms, with the word “lechem.” This term thus connotes the efforts and creativity that we must expend in the pursuit of sustenance.
The experience of the wilderness showed Benei Yisrael – and us – that while we must expend such efforts, the goal does not depend exclusively upon these efforts. And, as such, we should not allow the pursuit of livelihood to consume our minds and our lives without leaving time or energy for loftier matters. Rav Hirsch eloquently describes how the inherently admirable sense of duty to provide for one’s family can morph into a frantic and endless quest for income:
Now the illusive idea that this creative power of Man is the sole condition for his existence on earth, and forgets God’s Ruling being the first factor of the provision of Man’s food, although His providing care is shown by every tiny piece of bread by which we sustain one minute of our existence, this illusive idea is the most dangerous rock on which our faithful attention to duty founders. “The worry to provide bread for wife and child” is, in itself, such a justified incentive for our activities, that it easily tends to drive all other considerations out of sight, as soon as we believe that we, and we alone, have to provide for the existence of ourselves and those dependent on us. As soon as we believe that every acquisition that we wrest from Nature and our contemporaries ensures our and their existence no matter how that acquisition had been obtained, whether thereby we had cared for the laws of God and kept to the path He had indicated, or whether only by clever deft handling we had secured the “bread” without giving a thought as to whether God would agree with these means. And where this looking on one’s own human powers alone having to provide “bread” does not lead us away from the path of what is right and where our duty lies, it is still inclined to make us think of providing beyond the immediate necessities towards an ever-widening future. We think we have never done enough to satisfy our imagined duty, and talk ourselves into believing we have not discharged it unless we have acquired beforehand the means of existence for the whole of the future and for that of our children and grandchildren, and so we make the “worry of providing bread” into an unlimited breathless chase after income which denies any time for interest in purely spiritual and intellectual matters.
The experience of the wilderness and the miracle of the manna, Rav Hirsch explains, were thus intended to help us relax, by reminding us that the responsibility of providing our and our families’ needs does not rest solely upon our shoulders:
That is why God led us into the great school of a forty-years wandering in the wilderness where all the factors were lacking which otherwise grant men their bread out of nature and human powers, and made the one factor which, in normal conditions, tends to become pushed more and more into the background, and so easily forgotten, viz. the Divine Providential Solicitude…come visibly into the foreground. Instead of “bread,” bearing the stamp of human achievement, He fed us with “manna”… And in this preparatory school for the course of our lives we learned that not on bread alone, not on what bread represents of the support of man and Nature, is man directed to seek means for his existence, but on everything that God ordains – bread too, that man makes by his own skill, is naught but such a one – can man live. He can be quite sure that he will not be lost if, in order to keep faithful to God’s commands, he had to give up what normally he would get from Nature and man, and in the midst of the richest abundance of the gifts of Nature and man, it is only the most special care of God that will feed him.
For forty years, the human involvement in the process of securing a livelihood was suspended, and the process was carried out exclusively by the Almighty. This experience taught us that even when we must assume our share of the responsibility for supporting ourselves, it is not our exclusive responsibility. And, as such, we must be prepared to limit our profitable engagements for the sake of fulfilling our commitments to God, recognizing that God’s “manna” will supply the portion of our livelihood which we sacrifice to do His will.
Rav David Silverberg
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