Parshat Eikev begins with Moses recounting the transgressions of the Israelites in the desert, carefully laying out a new set of laws, and reconnecting the people to the covenant and the promises to come.
"This shall be the reward when you hearken to the ordinances, and you observe and perform them; Hashem, your God, will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that he swore to your forefathers." (Deut. 7:12)
Moses recounts all of the things that God does for the people while in the wilderness. He goes back and forth with his story, reminding the people both of the miracles they witnessed and of the struggles they had with him and with God. He reminds them that God brought them out of Egypt and provided for them in the wilderness, and reminds them they were provided sustenance, so that they would not starve. A new substance, manna, falls from the sky. Every day, more manna comes just enough to sustain them until the following day. This had both a positive and negative association for the people.
"He afflicted you and let you hunger, then He fed you manna that you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live." 8:3
Here also is evidence to the people’s struggle with God at the beginning. "He afflicted you…" Moses specifically distinguishes the people at Sinai from those in the past, because the present situation also poses different challenges. When Moses says, "Nor did your forefathers know," he acknowledges them in the present.
Most importantly, the verse notes that the manna is more than just food, it also holds a symbol. On one hand, God is continuing to take care of them, as God took them out of Egypt, and now is providing for their basic needs. On the other hand, God first let them experience hunger, and now gives them just enough manna each day to sustain them.
As Moses retells the story of leaving Egypt in Deuteronomy, one verse in particular from Eikev draws a lot of commentary relating to the manna that God provides. We read that a promise is made to the people that when they reach the Holy Land they will be able to "eat bread without poverty." (Deut. 8:9) What does this mean? Is it simply a blessing for prosperity, to always have enough to eat? Is it implying that while in the desert they were eating bread while in poverty? It seems the line denotes that bread, or manna, alone is not enough.
Rashi, a famous medieval scholar, comments on this verse, comparing physical sustenance to spiritual fulfillment. He says: "The Torah speaks not of poverty of insufficient calories nor of not enough money to buy food. The subject is spiritual poverty." There is more to life than simply taking what sustenance is provided to you.
Moses is preparing the people for the commandments, actions to live out the Torah. Rashi also says the answer to feed spiritual poverty is to perform all of the mitzvot, the commandments, in their entirety. Whatever we believe to be the true answer to spiritual fulfillment, we see that Moses is basically preparing the people to act.
Rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotzk also taught about the importance and power of sincere action. Known as the Kotzker, he was the author of a specific line of thought in Chassidic Judaism at the turn of the 19th century. The Kotzker taught first to always act in search of truth "as if it had not been known before." He relates this to prayer, saying that every day one should approach prayer as if it is a new experience. The Kotzker’s words also apply as an approach to spiritual poverty or fulfillment. There has to be something sincere and new about an experience. If one is simply taking what is placed before them, they have no ownership over it, making it less valuable.
We are compelled to interpret, discuss and learn from what we are presented with in order to set an example, or perhaps even to create our own experiences. We are faced often in our lives with making "Jewish choices." Sometimes that even means making the choice to be Jewish, and we learn from Parshat Eikev that to simply take what is given to us is not enough. Moses stressed to the people that this is their time to act. He states: "Rather, it is your own eyes that see all the great work of Hashem…" (Deut. 11:7) It is a recurring theme for Jews today to make an experience relevant to their lives. For example, at a Passover Seder we stress that it was not other people that were brought out of Egypt, but that it happened to us. We connect to our history by owning our experiences today and striving to find new meaning in them.
In the reality of the world we live in, on our respective (or hypothetical) campuses, this directly affects the work that we do. Are we in the business of creating spirituality? Do we just provide sustenance? Or should we be creating an environment in which we can each be comfortable wrestling with our Jewish decisions in a way that is meaningful to us? Perhaps the most spiritual experience we can have is the one we create for ourselves. Fulfillment does not rest merely on manna. As a people, we need an environment in which to explore, and the challenge to create meaning in our own experiences.
Prepared by Lisa Stella, former Soref fellow at Hillel’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center.