On July 4, 1845, American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau left his home in Concord, Massachusetts, and resettled on the shore of Walden Pond. He remained in the woods for a little over two years, preparing his own food, building his own shelter, mending his own clothing and gathering his own fuel. The point of this exercise, Thoreau later wrote, was to train himself “to front only the essential facts of life.” “Most men,” he contended, “lead lives of quiet desperation:” they “spend the best part of their life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.” By contrast, Thoreau’s motto was “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” This was a man who took pride in the fact that “my greatest skill has been to want but little.” In fact, Thoreau claimed that “by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living;” this left “the whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers… clear for study,” and other spiritual pursuits.
Eventually, of course, Thoreau’s experiment came to an end. On September 8, 1847, the philosopher finally decided to return home. He did this not out of economic necessity, but from the realization that “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” Yet the lessons he drew from his “life in the woods” never left him. As he summarizes at the beginning of his memoir, Walden:
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor… I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters…
When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and hotter fires, and the like. When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced… Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?
It would be difficult to overstate the cultural influence of Thoreau’s writings within the United States. Robert Frost, the celebrated American poet, once remarked of Walden that “in one book… Thoreau surpasses everything we have had in America.” American novelist and literary critic John Updike went even further: “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint,” he raved, “that the book risks being as revered… as the Bible.” This is certainly high praise.
Needless to say, no book will never replace the Tanakh, chas v’shalom, as far as we Jews are concerned. At any rate, many of the attitudes Thoreau espouses in Walden—including his renunciation of community, his disdain for the elderly, and his opposition to giving charity—are antithetical to Torah-axiology. All that granted, however, there is at least one point on which we can agree with Thoreau—and that is, on the conviction that life is about more than the mere accumulation of wealth. “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3), Moshe reminds the Israelites on the eve of their entrance into the Promised Land. This is a message that we as humans forget all too easily. But it is a critical message—perhaps the critical message—in our quest to lead meaningful lives. And thus, it is one of the very first messages which God delivers to us as a people, at the dawn of our national liberation.
Like Thoreau, the Israelites, in this week’s Torah portion, journey out into the unknown: not into the woods, mind you, but into a wilderness all the same. They have not ventured far into the Sinai dessert when pangs of hunger begin to set in. It is at this point that Hashem rains the mann-bread from heaven, welcoming the Israelites to eat of it on one condition—they must practice moderation:
Moshe said to the Israelites, “Here is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is the thing that the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it each one according to his eating capacity, one omer [=a unit of measure] for each person, according to the number of persons, each one for those in his tent you shall take.’” And the children of Israel did so: they gathered, some gathering very much and some gathering very little. Yet when they measured it by the omer, whoever gathered much did not have more, and whoever gathered little did not have less; each had gathered according to his eating capacity (Exod. 16:15-18).
According to Hashem, each Israelite is supposed to gather only that amount of mann which he requires for his basic sustenance. Some of the Israelites are not satisfied with this provision; in their greed, they gather far more than what they actually need. Yet when they measure their haul by the omer, they discover that their efforts to secure some sort of surplus have proven futile. Such is the nature of extravagance: those who chase it rarely profit in the long run.
In the verse that follows, Moshe, anticipating the Israelites’ next scheme, pre-empts it with a stern warning: “Let no one keep any leftovers for morning” (ibid. 15:19), he declares. Moshe realizes that the Israelites fantasize of fortune and hopes to discourage the habit of hoarding by outlawing it from the outset. Unfortunately, however, his instructions go unheeded: “But [some] men did not obey Moshe and left over of the mann until morning; so it bred worms and became putrid, and Moshe became angry with them (ibid. 20).” The image of the “worms” here is hardly accidental. Like mann, each man has an expiry date; we are on this earth for only so long before we ultimately return to it. It is thus incumbent upon us to fill our days with things that matter. “The cost of a thing,” Thoreau tells us, “is the amount of… life which is required to be exchanged for it.” When we waste our time running after that which we do not need, we are, in some sense, accelerating the process of our own decay.
It is fascinating to note Moshe’s next action in our chapter. Mere days after Moshe scolds the Israelites for keeping their portions of mann overnight, he himself arranges for a portion of mann to be set aside for later use. In fact, Moshe’s goals are far more ambitious than the people’s. Ostensibly, the Israelites had not planned to preserve their portions of mann for more than a day or two; for his part, however, Moshe plans to preserve the mann for eternity:
Moshe said, “This is the thing that the Lord commanded: ‘Let one omer of the manna be preserved for generations, in order that your descendants shall see the bread that I fed you in the desert when I took you out of the land of Egypt.’” And Moshe said to Aaron, “Take one jug and put there an omer of manna, and deposit it before the Lord to be preserved for your generations.” As the Lord had commanded Moshe, Aaron deposited it before the testimony to be preserved (ibid. 32-34).
Had we known no better, we might have assumed that the mann naturally rots quickly—and that this was why the Israelites were forbidden from stocking up on it. Yet this theory is undermined by the fact that the same mann which disintegrates when stored in the tents of the Israelites suddenly retains its taste and its texture when Moshe (through Aaron) is the one storing it. How can this be?
Clearly, the answer to our question does not depend on the mann’s biochemical properties. What the Torah is highlighting for us here, rather, is that the success of a particular investment has little to do with the means of investment, and everything to do with the meaning of that investment. Both the Israelites, and Moshe and Aaron, save for their futures, in a way. But whereas the former are looking to indulge, the latter are looking to inspire; whereas the former seek to create conditions of comfort, the latter seek to cultivate community consciousness—to transmit unto posterity some memory of their ancestors’ travels in the dessert, and of the relationship those ancestors forged there with Hashem. That is why the mann of the people withers away while the mann of their leaders endures. The Israelites have chosen to invest in early retirement. Moshe and Aaron have chosen to invest in Jewish education. Ultimately, it is the latter investment which will always yield the highest return.
“A person should toil greatly and even bear hardships rather than burdening others by appealing for funds,” the Rambam rules in his Mishne Torah (Hilchot Matnot Ani’im 10:18). At the bare minimum, all those who can achieve financial independence have a Halachik requirement to do so. Nor is there any prohibition against prosperity. Quite the contrary: “God has granted this earth to man,” proclaims David, in his psalms (Ps. 115: 16). As humans we are invited—encouraged, in fact—to partake of nature’s bounty, so long as we acknowledge its source (see Brachot 35a). Indeed, Hashem’s very first words to Adam in the Garden of Eden were, “Of every tree in this garden, eat” (Gen. 2:16). It was precisely so that we could enjoy, appreciate, and share among ourselves God’s many blessings, that He created us in the first place.
The challenge for us is to identify life’s real blessings amid a torrent of second-rate knock-offs. Smartphones, designer apparel, SUVs and vacation getaways to Hawaii are one form of blessing—and if we can afford them, we have no obligation to abstain. But these blessings should not come at the expense of the essentials. After all, religious identity is also a blessing. National pride is also a blessing. Fluency in the language of one’s people, literacy in its texts, knowledge of its customs and familiarity with its history are all also blessings. Each of these blessings is available to us as Jews—for we Jews are the fortunate heirs to one of humanity’s most ancient traditions. Ours is the tradition which taught the world that human being are created in the image of God, and that human life is therefore sacred. It is the tradition which taught the world to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and all other vulnerable members of society. It is the tradition which teaches us to value faith and love above all else, and which guides us to search for the meaning of life in our relationships with each other and with God—for it is through relationships that we connect, together, to that which is greater than ourselves. This is our tradition, and it is ours to claim, if only we want it.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Jewish day schools I attended growing up. The visits were pleasant, but one of the observations that struck me was how empty the halls seemed, relative to when I had been a student. These are top tier institutions, situated on state-of-the-art campuses, and yet the faculty report that enrollment has been steadily declining for years. This decline cannot simply be dismissed as a local trend. According to the Pew Report on Jewish life in America, published in October 2013, only 23% of Jewish children in the United States now attend Jewish day school at any level. Nearly 40% receive no formal Jewish education whatsoever. And while the average number of children per family among the general population is 2.2, in Jewish families, the figure drops to 1.9. This, despite the fact that there are more than two times as many households in the Jewish community with annual incomes over $100,000 (40%) as there are in the general population (18%).
There are, to be sure, many factors which contribute to the growing phenomenon of Jewish parents both having less children and sending less children to Jewish day school. One is the general tendency for all Americans, Jews included, to marry later than their parents did. A more immediate cause is the global financial crisis of 2008. And the fact that we have not yet found a viable solution to the problem of perpetually rising tuition costs does not help either. There is little doubt that the current model is unsustainable. On the other hand, schools should not be expected to deal with the various sociological and economic pressures facing the Jewish community all by themselves. The men and women who dedicate themselves to teaching and administering in Jewish day schools sacrifice more than anybody else for the cause of Jewish education; they are already shouldering their fair share of the load.
So it is upon the rest of us that (most of) the responsibility for this situation falls. What we need to do now is to engage, collectively, in some serious soul-searching. I speak here not of the gen-Xers, whom it is not my place to address, but to myself and to the members of my own generation, in whose hands lie the future of Jewish education. Those of us whose parents made sure we could attend a Jewish day school; those of us who were privileged to belong to a synagogue; those of us who spent our summers at Jewish sleepaway camp, and those of us who traveled to Israel with Birthright, March of the Living or NCSY—will we commit to granting our children these same formative experiences? Will we do what it takes to give to our children the same Jewish upbringing that our parents gave us, and their parents gave them, and their parents gave them, through thousands of years of Jewish history? Does it matter enough to us—or does the chain end here?
There is no way to downplay the price of Jewish education. Unless governments start funding Jewish schools the way they fund other schools (a worthy policy to push, particularly in the those Canadian provinces which continue to fund Catholic schools at the exclusion of Jewish ones)—or unless we move to Israel, where Jewish education is funded by the state (one of many worthy reasons to consider Aliyah)—the fact is that putting our children through Jewish day school is going to cost us tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars. For most of us, it will be the largest investment we ever make; for some of us, it will be possible only with the aid of subsidies.
And for all of us, it will be worth it in the end.
Perhaps we will have to forego many of the amenities that have become staples of the modern American lifestyle. Even so, our quality of life, in material terms, will far surpass anything our ancestors could have ever dreamed of. If we resist the temptation to compare ourselves with the Joneses (or the Cohens), and compare ourselves instead with the vast majority of the world’s population, both today and throughout history, we will immediately recognize that even the most modest among us lives in conditions of unprecedented affluence. We humans are exponentially wealthier and healthier now than we were even a century ago. Only due to a psychological principle known as relative deprivation—“abandoning all sense of perspective,” in layman’s terms—is this truth often lost on us. Yet it remains the truth all the same.
So let us resolve—now, while we are still young—to set our priorities straight. Let us clearly distinguish between our wants and our needs, in case we should ever have to choose between the two. Let us never find ourselves making the mistake of thinking that money buys, or is, happiness. Money is not happiness. Happiness is family and community and peoplehood. Happiness is love and faith and purpose and giving. These are the real values in life, and it is through the gift of Jewish education that we will bequeath these values to our children; it is through Jewish education, both at home and in school, that we will leave our children a legacy worth inheriting.