Why People Cannot Live on Bread Alone
It is a strange sentence: “I provided you with the Mana so that you should know that a person does not live on bread alone.” And then the Torah goes on to extoll the physical richness of the land the Israelites are coming to, and how it will provide all the food they could want.
Bread, unlike meat, is something made by human beings. It is first used in the Bible when Adam is told, “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat bread.” Our lives depend on food, but the process of making bread marks a stage beyond the early hunters and gatherers of humans. And it requires a great deal of effort at every stage, from sowing and reaping to grinding and baking, before one gets to eat it. In a sense, it is a metaphor for life. The basic raw materials are there, but they need working on.
The Bible is a book of transitions and stages. It describes a process of humans grappling with the realities and the demands of the physical world. It tells us about suffering and rewards. But equally important is the way it describes humans coming to terms with the moral and spiritual aspects of life. Simply eating, necessary as it is, like breathing, is just not enough to distinguish us from other forms of life or to fulfill our human potential.
It is in this context that Moses refers to the mythical Mana that sustains the Israelites in the wilderness. What was it? Wasn’t it food, too? But what if Mana was not sustenance but simply a metaphor for anything that comes from God, words, and ideas too? And why did it suddenly stop as they reached Canaan? Because now they were indeed on their own, they had in a sense to grow up and take responsibility, both for their material lives and their spiritual lives also.
One of the legends about the Mana is that it could taste like whatever you wanted it to. Your mental state could affect how the food tasted. As we know, our food can taste differently depending on our physical and mental states. One can eat to satisfy our needs or to gratify our greed. But eating food according to the Torah should be more than just a physical act of ingestion, digestion, and defecation. It should be a celebration.
And this explains why the very same section goes on to say, “You should eat and be satisfied and thank God,” which is the origin of the Birchat HaMazon — the blessings we recite before and after eating and drinking.
In the purely physical world, we can treat food as an art form, an expression of our creativity, and a delight for our palates that drive us on to taste new and different foods. Food, too, can be a way of showing off. But we should not forget to appreciate how lucky we are to have food, and to be able to enjoy it.
This is why the text of the blessings we say reminds us that we shouldn’t separate our pleasure from our moral senses. Many are not as fortunate as we are. Without our spiritual sense, something is lacking in ourselves and in the ways that we experience life. Bread, the physical, the material — essential as it is — is not enough.
The author is a writer and rabbi living in New York.