This week’s Torah portion contains a familiar if misunderstand verse. We read “man does not live on bread alone.” Often this is understood to mean that food is not the only staple of life. A full life should include literature, music and art (and I would add, sport). Of course there are those who interpret this verse literally, suggesting that we should eat more than just bread. Wine is always a nice addition, and perhaps even some cheese. These are worthy lessons but not the intention of the Torah. Instead the portion wishes to tell us that the only sustenance we require is faith in God.
Look at the verse in its context: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees….” (Deuteronomy 8)
There appears an ascetic strain within the Torah portion. It is as if it says, “Rely on God alone.” The Jewish tradition rejects this and believes that we must take care of our earthly needs in order to reach for the heavens. We cannot simply have faith in God and say, “Whatever God decrees.” We cannot, and should not, wait for manna to be provided for us. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught: “No sustenance (literally flour), no Torah; no Torah, no sustenance.” We require food and religion. The two must go hand in hand, the earthly human needs and the lofty heavenly ideals. If we focus only on heaven we lose sight of the everyday and human. Judaism teaches that the purpose of our religion is to elevate the earthly. We lift the everyday toward heaven.
Still the portion seems to suggest otherwise. It suggests that we only require faith. I prefer otherwise. Our tradition comes not to remove us from this world but instead to renew our commitment to it. I always prefer a good meal and Torah.