The True Source of Human Sustenance

Shabbat eve 8/15/14 –

Most of us probably remember an early childhood ‘experiment’ – taking a lima bean, placing it gently in a small cup of dirt from the yard, giving it a bit of water, and waiting….watching….waiting….until one day, a tiny green tendril poked its head out from the soil, reaching upward, stronger each day. A leaf unfurling, a new shoot sprouting forth.  A moment of creation, re-enacted.  As a child, it was almost miraculous to behold; but soon enough, with age and time, the miracle more than likely became routine, even burdensome – awe transformed into chores of weeding (though Ralph Waldo Emerson says: ‘What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.’) or raking for our parents, then later on maybe to landscaping and planting gardens for ourselves….and the more that we do, the more we are impressed by the work of our own hands.

That changed for my family 7 years ago.  We moved into a house where there were 12 fruit trees, and a large yard with potential for a large produce garden.  John and I – well, mostly John – slowly and systematically redesigned our yard, creating a drip-irrigated fruit and vegetable garden, to the extent that there was very little that I bought anymore in terms of produce.  We would eat whatever was growing, whatever was in season.  Moreover, the more that we cultivated, the more that we became acutely aware that while we worked very hard, either trying to replicate things that ‘worked’ or trying different techniques and arrangements, using varieties of seeds and plants – sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t.  While we worked to create and prepare all of the conditions for growing, there was a piece of it that was out of our hands. And we stood in awe of that – God’s presence in creation, in our yard.

In our Torah cycle this week, the Israelites are [still] standing at the edge of the Promised Land – “For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8) a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey;”  It is an image I totally relate to, standing at our back door in California, looking out at the abundance of what we coaxed from our yard.  And now, I stand here, glimpsing the abundance of my new ‘promised land’: of meaningful work, a new community, and bright new opportunities ahead in this next phase of my career and my family’s life; the gifts of life bring us sustenance.

As we look over the Land of our lives – lands of streams and springs, walking paths and trees; of abundant produce and beauty; lands of shopping malls and billboards, of life’s comforts and the illusion of security… we are always in some danger of forgetting the source of all of these gifts.  It is all too easy for us to think that what we have is solely because of our own work, our own education, our own talents, or our own perseverance.  It is too easy to forget that our successes depend on so many things beyond our own talents.  I know – it is too easy to be lulled into believing excessively in the extent of my own capacity – whether excess pride in our garden, or excess pride in the achievements that helped me to get to this moment.

Our tradition knows this danger.  Moses exhorts us to remember that with abundance and plenty comes the risk “that your heart will grow haughty and you will forget Adonai your God” (8:14) and “You will say in your heart: My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth…” (8:17).

Ah, you might think, but that isn’t me, is it? I am not haughty or egotistical or self-impressed…..for myself, I could look at all the good that I have done – we shared our abundant harvest with neighbors, friends and family;  or – look at what a great job I am already doing here at NVHC!  We all pride ourselves on a job well done. We all consider ourselves deserving of the profits of our labor.

The concern for the tendency of humanity toward self-promotion and need for appreciation and admiration is clearly addressed here– a trap for each of us.  But – here’s the beautiful part – we are given a way to avoid that path of arrogance, to avoid thinking that all that we have achieved is by our own hands alone. The prescription for how to counteract this is here, in the verses that follow, in the commandment embedded in this section: ‘V’achalta v’savata uveirachta’ – after we have eaten the manna that God has provided, and we are satiated, we are to give thanks – literally offer blessing to God, the ultimate source of all of our sustenance.  That is, when we start thinking this way, we are to remember that our strength was, after all, given to us by God.

Gratitude for the source of life, to the Source of Life, is meant to be at our center. And how does Torah describe the consequences of not holding this consciousness? “If you do forget the Eternal your God . . . I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.” (Deuteronomy 8:19).  Will God really come and strike us down? Unlikely – at least not in my theological construct.  But, look around at our world.  At people whose lives seem full of stuff, who procure every material thing that they desire, who are never left wanting for food or clothing.  That is only sufficient if we can recognize that things are fleeting; without expressed and understood gratitude and blessing for all that we have, our lives become overrun with an endless spiritual hunger, bereft of finding true joy and sustenance, even when our bellies are full of manna.

There is a teaching from Menachem Mendyl of Rymanov, an 18th Century chasidic teacher who teaches that the virtue of manna was that it was given every day in appropriate measure to each person’s needs.  Even so, this did not quench the cravings of the Israelites, for their cravings were spiritual in nature. Food feeds the body but not the spirit. The human spirit is such that we crave more than bread. While we may pursue money or materialism, there is a spiritual dimension of life that ultimately satisfies the soul, making our existence feel truly worthwhile.

The successes we achieve do not guarantee our happiness. After we’ve bought the house of our dreams, or our fantasy sports car, the latest cell phones, laptops or DVDs, we are all too often looking to the next thing. This is the essence of our teaching here: For satisfaction to be lasting, it must be more than material; it must be spiritual. It is right here in this week’s reading: “…in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone…” meaning, we need more than bread and money; we need stimulation and a sense of meaningful achievement. We need to know that our lives have purpose, and that somehow we have made a difference. We want to be assured that our work is productive and will have lasting value.

The spiritual challenge of Ekev therefore becomes how to break the spell of consumerism – the human obsession with acquisition and ownership – whose power over us rests only in our continual dissatisfaction.  Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, writes: “Shifting away from obsessive consumerism does not call for a life of sackcloth and ashes, nor of altruism. And it does not call on poor people or poor nations to be content with their fate and learn to love their misery; clearly, the capitalist economy must be strong enough to provide for the basic creature comforts of all people. But it does call for a new balance between consumption and other human pursuits.” Physical and spiritual.  True Sustenance requires meaning.

One more story: It is of a prisoner in a Russian labor camp whose job it was to turn a heavy wheel attached to a wall. For twenty-five years, the prisoner worked at his backbreaking labor. He assumed that this wheel must be attached to a mill on the other side of the wall; perhaps he was milling grain, or pumping water that irrigated many fields. In his mind’s eye, though, he saw the plentiful crops and the sacks of milled grain feeding thousands of people. After twenty-five years of hard labor, when he was about to be released, the prisoner asked to be shown the apparatus behind the prison wall. There was nothing there! The wheel was just a wheel—all his “work” had served no useful purpose. The man collapsed in a dead faint, absolutely devastated. His life’s work had been in vain.

What we find here about living is that it is upon us to go beyond just eating and being satisfied, but it is rather in making the opportunity to acknowledge that we are part of a larger world, that much as we like to think we are in control, and whatever one’s theology, belief in God, looks like, it is just not all in our hands.  As we approach the transformative time of our High Holy Days, may we find ways to explore how we can truly sustain our souls in order that we can pursue real t’shuvah – a true turning to our best selves.

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