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Not by Bread Alone

When I was living in Bushwick, NY, my roommate Aaron Wertheimer, an old childhood friend, would always watch Arrested Development. Seeing it in passing, I didn’t fully get the epicness of the show and its humor. When I gave it a real chance, I was hooked. I think it even topped Seinfeld in how beyond brilliant it was. As I write this, so many lines are circling my mind, but one that sticks out is George Bluth, Sr. reassuring his son, Michael Bluth, the main character, that “there’s always money in the banana stand”. When Michael hears this, he interprets it to mean that the banana stand that the family owns will always make money, not realizing why his father kept winking at him while saying this, missing the actual message that there are literally thousands of dollars in cash hidden in the walls of the stand. Michael only realized this after the stand was burned down in a misguided attempt to get insurance reimbursement for it.

Wisdom can come to us in all kinds of ways; even a comedy show can reflect profound teachings. The lesson here is that we have to be careful in assessing where true wealth comes from. We tend to think that money comes to us through cunning. But the Torah comes to teach us that all is in the hands of Hashem. All is there for us; it’s just a matter of tapping into this reality and not missing the message or burning it down. 

We learn in Likutei Moharan: Hashem’s light, which descends upon us, is in an undifferentiated and unformed state. It is up to each of us to create a vessel with which to receive this light, so that it can take shape within and through us. If a person’s vessel is faulty, they won’t know the true meaning of… “money in the banana stand.” They just won’t come to the realization of where their wealth can be found. It doesn’t mean the light won’t come to that person, but that person won’t have the capacity to shape the light into a blessing. That is why it’s written, “It is a blessing that I have taken,”1 because it is up to each person to perfect their vessel so that they can receive Hashem’s blessing.2 We cannot choose our blessings or how much light we will receive, but we can continually work to make ourselves vessels that are open to receiving– and giving– blessings and light. 

In the first aliyah in this parashah, Eikev, Moshe reminds us of the road we traveled: “[Hashem] sent hardships to test you, to determine what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He made life difficult for you, letting you go hungry, and then He fed you the manna, which neither you nor your ancestors have ever experienced. This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that man lives, but by all that emanates out of Hashem’s mouth.”3 Reb Natan of Breslov elaborates on this verse, explaining that we learn here that sustenance comes from Hashem’s blessings, and that by reciting the blessings over bread and other foods, we invoke that blessing.4 And Moshe goes on to explain the most important part to not blocking your blessings, which reads, “Safeguard the commandments of The Lord your God, so that you will walk in His ways and remain in awe of Him.”5

An Unhaughty Heart

This all centers on emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust)– that when we experience hardship, we often don’t have the ability to see it as something that is ultimately good, that everything is in the hands of Hashem and all is for the best. Mastering faith, perspective, and humility is no easy feat; in fact, it is generally a lifelong struggle. A few years ago, I was struggling with one of the most difficult decisions of my life, and I felt paralyzed by indecision. My friend showed me the famous painting depicting Hernan Cortés, the 16th century Spanish explorer, and the burning of his ships. Cortés arrived in the Americas with six hundred men and, as he did, he made history by destroying his ships, sending a clear message to his men that there was no turning back. I learned from this that in order for blessings to flow, you have to move forward with faith and trust. And that’s how to escape indecision– to allow yourself to believe that all you can do is go forward and put trust that Hashem will guide you toward what’s best. 

Chassidic teaching refines the meaning of hashgachah, Divine Providence, defining it as Hashem’s caring watchfulness and direct personal supervision (hashgachah pratit) of everything that exists. For humanity, hashgachah more specifically signifies Hashem’s ongoing, active participation in every aspect of our lives: He provides each person with the necessary means to serve Him and make His Immanence (the Divine Presence) known in the world. This is most clearly apparent with regard to each person’s livelihood. A person who has bitachon in Hashem, believing that Hashem alone provides for all his needs, will earn his income honestly and make sure to set aside time for Torah, tefillah, and mitzvot. 

Further in this parashah, in the second Aliyah, Hashem says, “Take care lest you forget Hashem by not observing the mitzvot” and warns against being lost in the accumulation of possessions to the point that your “heart turns haughty, and you forget Hashem, who took [each of us] out of Egypt from the house of slaves,” thinking in your heart, “My strength and the might of my hand made me this wealthy.”6

Yalkut Yosef quoting Orot HaMitzvah explains the purpose of berachot (blessings), particularly birkat hamazon (the blessing after meals): to keep us mindful of Hashem’s ever-present hashgacha. The next verse says, “Lest you eat and be full… and your heart will be haughty, and you will forget Hashem, your God.”7 It is in man’s nature, once full, to forget who is the Provider above all. Maybe we worked for, acquired, and cooked the food, but we can’t ever forget who is the Provider of all providers, from whom everything emanates and is created. We read here that we need to remove the thought that it all comes from our own efforts, because that is when ego manifests and holiness grows more distant. In order to ensure this not to be the case, we are commanded to bless Hashem and proclaim our love of Hashem, as it’s written, “For all is from You, and what we have given You [came] from Your hand.”8  

Who Gives You the Power to Get Wealth

This is spelled out in the following verse:

וְזָֽכַרְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י ה֗וּא הַנֹּתֵ֥ן לְךָ֛ כֹּ֖חַ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת חָ֑יִל לְמַ֨עַן הָקִ֧ים אֶת־בְּרִית֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה

Remember that it is Hashem, your God, who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.9 

This is an important lesson in giving proper respect to what formed you, to have understanding and gratitude for the people and forces to which you owe your life and all you have. That kind of perspective is essential to creating a vessel that can receive one’s proper share of the Infinite Light. The reverse of this is, as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov articulates, Taavot mammon, the lust for money, which is most apparent in a person who makes it his life’s mission to amass ever greater wealth.10 Lacking emunah in Hashem, the person instead puts his bitachon in money, mistakenly believing that the more he has, the more secure and fulfilling his life will be.

A subtler form of taavat mammon is seen in someone who understands the foolishness of pursuing wealth but whose attachment to money makes them greedy. Lacking a generous spirit, the person finds it difficult to part with their wealth and so is stingy in giving charity and tight-fisted with strangers and family alike. A third, subtle but more common form of taavat mammon is when a person worries and grows anxious about not having enough money. His distress indicates a lack in his emunah and bitachon, an inability to rely on Hashem to provide him with livelihood without his having to sacrifice his whole life to earn it.

Working for myself all of my adult life, I was able to see Hashem’s hand in my livelihood at all times. I certainly could have stressed and lacked faith that I would be able to financially survive, but I knew from experience as an entrepreneur, especially when in sales mode, I could call a thousand people and not close even one deal, or I could call one person and close the one deal that was meant for me at that time. It doesn’t mean that I put in less effort, but it did mean that I was able to step back and put trust into the hashgachah pratit or, as some call it, the Universe. 

These experiences also taught me that being engaged in business is not all about finding the best strategies to receive. Acquiring has to be balanced with giving. Good things come from giving. Community, love, and wealth– people want to give to those who give and often want to hold back from those that don’t. To give or to love unconditionally requires emunah, which is a very tough practice, but it is one that rewards the faithful and sometimes punishes the faithless.

Further in Likutey Moharan,11 Rebbe Nachman teaches that money and dinim (judgments) share the same spiritual root on high, so for a person with taavat mammon, earning a living is fraught with hardship and difficulty. Just like Adam after he sinned, the greedy person’s sustenance comes “through suffering… and by the sweat of his brow.”12 And so the more one puts into spiritual practice, the easier it is to gain materially.

Based on the Zohar,13 the Rebbe speaks of the desire for money as a conflagration of the heart. And the advice for cooling the flame of money-lust is to give one’s money to tzedakah (charity). Giving tzedakah creates a ruach (spirit) of generosity, a ruach (wind) that blows upon their heart and dampens both the burning desire for wealth and the Divine wrath that it elicits. 

When a person is giving and goes about business with honesty and emunah, it furthers one’s trust in that all of our livelihood comes solely from Hashem. Ethics in earning a living are so essential that Chazal (our Sages) teach: The first question a person is asked by the Heavenly Court after they pass away is “Did you conduct your business b’emunah?”14 Only those who lived life with emunah and bitachon will be able to answer this in the affirmative. 

Reb Natan, based on Likutey Moharan,15 pleads with Hashem to help him engage in masa u-matan be-emunah (the give and take/commerce, faithfully) and to enable him to make Torah study his primary occupation and earning a living an occasional endeavor. He asks to not weary his mind with earning a living and, while engaging in business, to be able to attach his thoughts to Hashem and to the holy Torah that is embedded within the give-and-take of business and the practice of one’s worldly occupation.16

While certainly not comparing myself in any way to Reb Natan, for the past two years, as I have devoted myself to learning Torah so that I could write these dvars and gone to shul more to say Kaddish for my mom’s neshamat aliyah, I have seen that the more I put into connecting to the Light of Infinite, the easier the struggle in the space of finitude and finances has been. Opportunities now come to me, and I choose whether I have the bandwidth for them, taking into account the time I want to spend with my kids and the time I want to be immersed in Torah. 

The Rusty Penny

The following is a story about the Alter Rebbe, also known as the Ba’al HaTanya, because he wrote the Tanya, the Chassidic sefer that is a constant inspiration to me…

The Rebbe was once raising money for Jewish prisoners. He was headed to a town that was famous for a miser that lived within. So stingy was this miser, that even the lowliest beggars of the town would skip over his house. The miser was wealthy, but no matter the cause, he would refuse to give anything more than a single rusty copper coin, which even the beggar would pass on, as they found it insulting, especially from someone so well-to-do.

The Alter Rebbe was greeted graciously by the community, but when he mentioned that he wanted to visit the house of the miser, they strongly suggested that he skip that house, as it would be a waste of time. But the Rebbe was adamant, and so they wished him luck and provided him with two gentlemen to escort him.

The next day the three Chassids went to the mansion of the miser and right before knocking on the door, the Alter Rebbe turned to the two gentlemen and asked that throughout the visit, they make sure not to speak, no matter what.

They then entered the mansion and sat in the beautiful front room. The owner came to greet them with a small velvet money pouch that he fetched from his safe. The rich man looked at the men and said, “Oy, the suffering of the Jewish people! When will it all end? Here, Rabbi, take my humble donation.”

As the Alter Rebbe took the single rusty copper coin, he smiled warmly and seemed very pleased. The miser was astonished; he had never been met with anything disdain for donating this single coin. As the Alter Rebbe put the coin in his pocket, he smiled again and in a beautiful and sincere tone said, “Thank you, Mr. Solomon. May Hashem bless and protect you always.” At this moment, the Alter Rebbe, as he normally would with donations, wrote the miser a receipt that included his blessings on it. He gave him the receipt, thanked him yet again and shook the man’s hand, looking into his eyes with admiration. He then turned to the two gentlemen that had quietly accompanied him and said, “we must be on our way. We have a lot of collecting to do tonight.”

As the three Chassidim walked to the door, the Alter Rebbe turned one last time to wish a warm farewell to the host. Outside of the house, the two gentlemen thought that they could finally speak their minds. One of them spoke up, saying, “You should have thrown it back in his face.” But as they walked from the house to the front gate, the Alter Rebbe simply replied, “Don’t turn around and don’t say a word.” 

Just then they heard the door opening behind them, and the miser shouting out, “Rabbis, chassids, please come back for a minute. Hello, hello! Please, I must speak to you, please . . . please, come back in.”

The Alter Rebbe gladly turned around to greet the miser yet again, while the other two gentlemen reluctantly joined him. They sat back down in the beautiful room, but this time the owner was pacing back and forth. He paused and looked at the Alter Rebbe and asked, “Exactly how much money do you need to ransom these prisoners?” The Rebbe replied, “About five thousand rubles.” So, the miser handed over one thousand rubles from his stack of bills. The two gentlemen were completely astounded; never in their lives had they heard of the miser parting with anything more than a single worthless coin. They were so afraid that maybe he was taunting them that they didn’t even look up at him.

The Alter Rebbe warmly thanked Mr. Solomon, shook his hand, and wrote yet another receipt that included beautiful blessings. The tune of the gentlemen changed from frustration to disbelief. They looked at each other and said, “That was a miracle!” The Alter Rebbe reminded them to be still, be silent and to not turn around. As they approached the gate, they heard Mr Solomon shout out to them yet again. This time he shouted, “Rabbis, please, I have changed my mind. Please, come in once more. I want to speak with you.”  

As they entered the house a third time, the two gentlemen’s suspicions were proven correct, or so they thought. The miser looked at them and said, “I have decided to give the entire sum needed for the prisoners and their ransoms. Here it is, five thousand rubles. Please, count it to see that I have not made a mistake.”

The Rabbis had never witnessed such a miracle. They asked the Alter Rebbe, “How did you get that notorious miser to give 5,000 rubles?”

The Rebbe replied, “That man is no miser; no Jewish soul truly is. But how could he desire to give, if he never in his life experienced the joy of giving? Everyone he gave that rusty penny of his threw it back in his face.” 

The miser was simply looking for someone to be grateful, as gratitude is a channel of receiving. It’s the same with all of us as creations and how we need to align ourselves with our Creator. We often beg or pray for so much, but how often do we thank heaven for everything we already have? The idea of saying a blessing over everything we do in Judaism, even on a morsel of bread that we eat, is that that blessing brings in more blessings. 

When the miser saw that finally someone had thanked him for giving charity, even if it was a single simple coin, it inspired him to give more and more. This is how we have to live, so that we remain humble and so that we become a vessel of blessing.17

Light Begets Light

The Arizal teaches18 that Creation came about because Hashem had a desire to give. Therefore, the natural state of being is one in which chesed, the bounteous and unlimited influx of Hashem’s kindness, flows freely into the world, unhampered by either sin or dinim. And though the state of being in Eden depicted in Bereishit was ephemeral and won’t become our reality until “sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked cease to be,”19 some of its concealment becomes revealed in small ways when we serve Hashem and do His will, as Light begets Light. This is done by constantly remembering, as we read very clearly in this Parashah, that our success is never our own. It is Hashem who wills our success and well-being. We need to put the work in to succeed, but we also have to remember the Creator of all creation, and the more faith we put in, the clearer the light becomes for each of us. 

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Notes & Sources

  1. Numbers 23:20
  2. Likutei Moharan I 36:6
  3. Deuteronomy 8:2-3
  4. Likutey Halachot IV, p. 135a
  5. Deuteronomy 8:6
  6. Ibid 8:11-17
  7. Ibid 8:12-14
  8. I Divrei HaYamim 29:14
  9. Deuteronomy 8:18
  10. Likutey Moharan I, 23:1
  11. Likutey Moharan I, 180
  12. Genesis 3:17, 19
  13. Zohar III, 224a
  14. Talmud Shabbat 31a
  15. Likutey Moharan I, 13
  16. Likutey Tefillot # 13
  17. chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3180/jewish/The-Rusty-Penny.htm
  18. Eitz Chaim 1:1
  19. Psalms 104:35