Torah | Shofar alerts us to seek a way to live on more than bread alone


Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25

Isaiah 49:14-51:3

With the sound of a long, clear blast of the shofar, the days of Elul are upon us. Beginning Saturday night, Jews begin a monthlong process of introspection culminating in the High Holy Days. The preparation for the Jewish New Year is not about stocking our cupboards with confetti and champagne, but rather a spiritual clearing of the innermost chambers of our hearts. The piercing shofar blasts of Elul are our alarm clock, alerting us that the time to do the High Holy Day hard work is here.

In this week’s parashah, Eikev, Moses recalls the difficulties the Israelites faced as they set off on their wanderings through the desert. Recalling the difficulty of finding sustenance, Deuteronomy 8:3 reads, “God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that Adonai decrees.”

This verse teaches us that the hunger felt by the Israelites as they wandered through the desert was about more than their rumbling stomachs. Rather, the hunger they felt was for more than “bread alone.” The Israelites’ hunger was not of a physical nature, but rather emerged from a spiritual void.

Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch (Torah Gems), explains: “The soul of man descends into the trappings and trials of physical life in order to unite with and elevate the ‘sparks of holiness’ buried in the food it eats, the clothes it wears, and all the other objects and forces of the physical existence it interacts with. For when a person utilizes something, directly or indirectly, to serve the Creator, he penetrates its shell of mundanity, revealing and realizing its Divine essence and purpose.”

When our physical needs are not met, we are not able to meet our true purpose. When we are starving, we can do little else but seek food. The trappings of physical life give us the ability to serve God with our “fullest” selves. The food we eat to fill our bellies, the clothes we wear to protect our skin from the elements, the roofs that keep us warm and dry — each of these comforts is instrumental in allowing the blast of the shofar to pierce our waiting hearts.

Elul approaches. We face the moments from our year that we wish we had done better or differently. Some take the opportunity to stand face to face with friends and family and ask forgiveness. Elul offers us an opportunity to start again. We cannot live on bread alone — in other words, we cannot only be comfortable, full and fed. Elul encourages us to face a moment of vulnerability before another person waiting for the gift and grace of forgiveness.

Bread alone does not bring healing or fortitude in moments such as these. We need love; we need patience; we need time; we need courage. For each of Elul’s 29 days we are delicately balanced between our physical and spiritual needs. We feed our hunger and we feed our souls as the shofar’s blast draws us closer and closer still.

It is not until Yom Kippur that we truly allow the scales to tip, catapulting into true physical hunger and taking on the impossible task of total spiritual sustenance. We learn the true meaning of Deuteronomy 8:3, experiencing just a touch of the hunger the Israelites felt as they wandered. In this moment, we too feel a little bit lost as we search for our name, once more, on the pages of the Book of Life.

Finally, we break our fast. We sit down to bread, and lox, and cream cheese, and cake, too. And in this moment, we’ll look once again to Parashat Eikev, finding the words that are echoed today in Birkat HaMazon, the prayer for finishing a meal. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.” We will sigh with satisfaction because our bellies will be full once again, but even more so: We will sigh with the fullness of our hearts.

As we look toward this year’s High Holy Day season, may you be blessed, and may you be full.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].