It may come as a surprise to those of us who feel happiest basking in warm summer weather, but studies show that the highest rates of happiness are enjoyed by people in countries closest to the arctic circle, like Finland and Denmark. We do need physical comforts and safety, of course. But there is something that we, as humans, need— beyond these things, too. In other words, living a comfortable life, and having enough food to eat, does not directly correlate to satisfaction; a person my not be physically hungry at all, but still feel empty in life. There is a desire, a hunger, for more.
Do you know what I am talking about?
Jewish tradition has tried to describe this feeling-- the aspect of human nature that longs for more. And, I must say that it is so wonderful to be part of a tradition that recognizes this aspect of the human condition.
In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, we find the famous Deuteronomy quote from Chapter 8, verse 3:
כִּ֠י לֹ֣א עַל־הַלֶּ֤חֶם לְבַדּוֹ֙יִחְיֶ֣ה הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֛י עַל־כָּל־מוֹצָ֥א פִֽי־יְהוָ֖ה￼ יִחְיֶ֥ה הָאָדָֽם׃￼
￼"For not on bread alone does a person live; for it is on all that is brought forth from the mouth of God that a person ￼lives."
In essence: Bread, that is sustenance, is not the end all be all of existence. We, as humans long for more.
Rabbi DovBer, also known as the Maggid of Mezeritch, studied this text and expounded upon it by linking it from one of the Psalms. He said:
￼"Therein lies a deeper meaning to the verse (Psalms 107:5):
￼￼'The hungry and the thirsty, in them does their soul wrap itself.'
A person may desire food and sense only his body’s hunger, but in truth, his physical craving is but the expression and external "packaging" of a deeper yearn --his soul's craving for the sparks of holiness that are the object of its mission in physical life."
The Maggid realized that there is a hunger that no bread can satisfy— it is a deep spiritual longing for meaning. Let’s take that in for a second. There is another kind of longing that is on par with physical security.
That doesn’t mean that a person can live without the necessities of bread. But, rather, that bread alone does not make a life. Afterall, even manna from heaven, provided directly by God Godself, and in the midrash said to be plentiful and to taste like whatever the eater wanted it to taste like— even THAT was not satisfying to the Israelites. They wanted more. They still longed for meaning and they complained— OY how they complained!
Perhaps this was by design— to teach us about the other kind of hunger. This spiritual longing. In that case, they wanted to be more than just wandering Israelites. They longed for purpose while they were finding their way out of the wilderness.
In contemporary times, we may each feel this as well. A deep need to search out meaning beyond our grasping for purpose in the wilderness.
These are cases where:
We may have a great job yet still feel like we are not fulfilling our life’s work.
We may have personal inherited wealth but are not involved with stewarding that wealth in meaningful activities.
We may be physically fit, but wall ourselves off from human connection and intimacy.
The verse in this Torah portion, and really all of Jewish tradition, is teaching us that we should not only be concerned with feeding our physical bodies, but we should take time to consider the deeper questions of life. Who are we? What difference do we want to make in the world? What is our purpose?
So, it makes sense that the world happiness reports agree with this assessment. Happiness in these countries is attributed to two factors. In part due to personal well being like income and health— that is bodily comforts. But, the other half of the rankings are due generosity, a sense of freedom from corruption-- that is spiritual comforts.
What this suggests is that getting in touch with souls and doing our soul work as it relates to our purpose, sense of agency, and freedom from injustice, is just as important as making sure we have physical comforts.
How wonderful that this Torah portion, reminding us of these specific aspects of life and happiness, comes right as we are beginning to prepare for the Days of Awe — where we begin taking stock of our lives, and begin to think about how we number our days, and make an impact in the world. Where we get out of the rat race of corporate ladder climbing and daily measures that ensure our physical comforts— and we are called to consider our higher purpose.
The timing of these questions also comes right after this coming Wednesday's holiday of Tu B’Av— the Jewish Valentines Day— where we consider how we love ourselves and connect with others amidst all of the activities of life.
So, as we prepare to take stock of our lives in the coming weeks, let's consider our areas of greatest satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and consider if the hunger of our soul is being satisfied. And if not, how will we get there? Beginning to chart this way out of the wilderness will ensure for ourselves a wonderful new year. Ken Yehi Ratzon— May it be! Amen!