WHAT HUMANS NEED
“Man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Whenever I read the famous verse quoted above, I think about an old story. A young minister runs a food kitchen for the homeless in the church. As the homeless gather, before feeding them he begins preaching a sermon. The older minister walks in and interrupts him. “What are you doing?” “I am worried about their souls,” answers the young minister. The older minister replies, “Worry about their bodies and your own soul. Feed them.”
Human beings need more than food and the other basic physical necessities of life. But when people are hungry, nothing else matters. Man may not live by bread alone, but without bread, we cannot truly live. The verse comes as Moses reminds the people of the manna which they ate in the wilderness. The manna was not bread, but Jewish tradition said it could take on whatever taste people desired (a bit like tofu). Ilana Kurshan (daughter of my colleague Rabbi Neil Kurshan), in her commentary on the portion, mentions how the Israelites received only enough manna for each day (except before Shabbat), and then had to gather it again the next day. She quotes the Talmud, “There is no comparison between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not have bread in his basket” (Yoma 74b). Humans not only need bread today but the certainty that they will not go hungry tomorrow. I believe this is a beautiful insight.
Let me share another insight on the idea that man does not live by bread alone. The psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) built a pyramid of human needs. On the bottom of the pyramid are basic physical needs, needs we share with the animal kingdom. We need food and shelter. As humans we need clothing. Maslow also includes sex as a basic physiological need on the bottom of his pyramid. Without fulfilling these needs, nothing else matters. But Maslow sees four more levels in his pyramid beyond the physical.
The second level of Maslow’s pyramid is also related to the physical. People need safety and security in their lives. It is difficult to find purpose in life if one constantly fears that their life and even their property is vulnerable. I think of the millions of people who live not simply in foreign countries but in some neighborhoods in the United States who live in constant fear. We humans have physiological needs and security needs. But animals have those same needs. According to Maslow, humans need more.
The third level of Maslow’s pyramid is a sense of belonging. The Torah said it best, “It is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18).” Barbra Streisand sang it, “People who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” Human beings are not meant to be alone. We need a family, a spouse, a partner, a lover, and/or a community. Even with our wealth, loneliness is a major problem in our Western civilization. People need to seek out other people and develop that sense of belonging.
The fourth level of Maslow’s pyramid is what he calls esteem, a sense that we are important and that we are needed. We must develop a sense of achievement and confidence, that we feel like we are worthy. Maslow also uses the word status. So often people feel ignored or unimportant, particularly if they are put down by other people in their lives. This is particularly important in the workplace, where some supervisors seem to enjoy harassing their employees. A sense of self-esteem is important, but for Maslow, it is still not enough.
He brings a fifth or highest level, which he calls self-actualization. Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl (1905 – 1997) said something similar when he wrote his book Man’s Quest for Meaning. He found those most likely to survive the horrors he experienced were those who found a sense of purpose in their lives. My upcoming retirement next year has forced me to think about what I want to accomplish in the years ahead. Too many people have told me that the unhealthiest thing one could do is retire and find no purpose.
Humans need food, security, community, status, and sense of purpose. That is the message that “man does not live by bread alone.”
WHAT HUMANS NEED