What the Midrash Means Series – Vayeitzei

כי לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם

For life is nourished by more than bread alone.

The Context

About to cross the border of the Holy Land on his way to Haran in flight from his raging brother, Ya’acov takes a nap on the spot which, unbeknown to him at the time, was to become the Temple Mount. The dazzling beauty of the ladder dream tends to eclipse the deep experiences of Yaacov when he awoke. Shocked that he had slept in so holy a place he marks the spot and makes an oath: If he, Yaacov, is able to retain his purity so that Hashem will keep His undertaking to accompany him on his journey, protect him, provide him with bread to eat and clothes to wear and enable Ya’acov to return peacefully to his father’s house thereby acting as a true G-d to Yaacov, then the stone he placed there would become the the Temple of G-d and he (Yaacov) would tithe everything he earned

Did Yaacov really use that treasured moment of contact with the Divine to ask for bread and clothes? The Midrash has a different insight.

The Midrash

ונתן לי לחם לאכול ובגד ללבוש – עקילס הגר נכנס אצל ר”א אמר לו הרי כל שבחו של גר שנאמר (דברים י) ואוהב גר לתת לו לחם ושמלה אמר לו וכי קלה היא בעיניך דבר שנתחבט עליו אותו זקן שנאמר ונתן לי לחם לאכול ובגד ללבוש ובא זה והושיטו לו בקנה… נכנס אצל רבי יהושע …התחיל מפייסו בדברים לחם זו תורה דכתיב (משלי ט) לכו לחמו בלחמי שמלה זו טלית זכה אדם לתורה זכה לטלית
(ב”ר פר׳ ע׳ ס”ה)

My Translation

“…and He will provide for me bread to eat and clothing to wear…” (Bereishit 28:20): – Akillas the Geir[1] (proselyte) called on Rabbi Eliezer and, based on the verse in Devarim 10:18 “…and He loves the convert, giving him bread and clothes,” he challenged him: “Is this the total praise the Torah gives the Geir?” Rabbi Eliezer answered him, “Is that which the famous elder (Yaacov) had to plead for, bread and clothes, so trivial to you even though to you Hashem is willing to hand it on a platter? Unsatisfied, Akillas went to Rabbi Yehoshua who soothed him with an explanation: When Hashem promises you and other Geirim bread and clothes and when Yaacov pleads for bread and clothes, it does not just mean bread and clothes literally. The bread that it refers to is Torah wisdom – as King Solomon uses the term in Mishlei 9:5 “go and satisfy yourselves with My bread (meaning Torah)” and the word clothingmeans the honored outfit of a talmid chacham, [2]one saturated with Torah wisdom. (Bereishit Rabbah– 70:5)

Its Meaning

A Midrashic metaphor is more than a literary figure of speech. A Midrashic metaphor is an ideological equation that provides new and deep insight into the idea it represents. In this case the metaphor of bread teaches us essential insights into the nature of Torah and our relationship to it. Bread is a finished product, ready to be digested, but it is not plucked from a tree or extracted from the ground. Before bread is produced, land must be plowed, wheat must be planted and tended, then harvested, threshed and winnowed. It must be milled and transported to the baker where it must be kneaded into dough, left to rise and baked into loaves. Lechem, the word for bread, shares a root with the word milchama, battle. Bread, more than any other basic food, is produced after a labor intensive ‘battle’ with the elements of nature including earth, water, fire and air. Only after the battle, after the struggle to produce it, can bread nourish and sustain human life. Bread has its own beracha (blessing), different from any other food, and it is the only food that is unique to the human species.

Torah is like bread in the way it is prepared. It is true that today Torah, even complex Gemmarra, is available in translation and in well explained on-line shiurim instantly accessible at the push of a button. But instant and effortless Torah, as valuable as it is for purposes of information and connection with our heritage, is about as spiritually nourishing as instant bread made from artificial ingredients! The process of essek Hatorah (engaging with Torah) is transformative. Its value is apart from the usefulness of the conclusions students reach or the information they acquire from merely covering pages of text. There is much Torah being learnt today, but not all of it successfully assuages people’s hunger for spiritual nourishment. This is because most Torah being learned today is consumed rather than invested in and produced from raw ingredients.

Nourishment from Torah results from that learning which is a product of deep intellectual, emotional and spiritual toil. Teachers who make the Torah easy to access and comfortable to learn perform a great service in one area, but deprive people of nourishment in another. There are no shortcuts to nourishment. The tears of frustration from hours of toil that fail to lead to clarity, are familiar to all serious students of Torah, as are the late nights and early mornings. The research, the probing, the blind alleys that lead to nowhere but consume time and effort, are all part of milchamta shel Torah – the struggle for Torah. Rigorous debate with a chavrussa (colleague in learning) or Rebbe, standing ones intellectual ground in the face of erudite attack and the challenge of abandoning ones ego in the acceptance of a viewpoint radically different to ones own, are all part of this Divine struggle. It is this very struggle however, that nourishes the soul and builds the Torah character in ways incomparable to any other form of intellectual nourishment.

The Learning

  • Nutrition comes from the energy we consume and is measured in calories or Kilojoules. Nourishment comes from what we invest and its value cannot be measured.
  • Food provides nutrition, but working for a living can provide nourishment if one toils in a labor that adds value to others and serves them. A meal provides nutrition, but working out or going for a run can nourish the body.
  • A husband or father can provide his family with nutrition as can the mother or wife who buys ready-made food with the money the husband (or she herself) makes. Parents and spouses who are invested in their families nourish them with love, thoughtfulness and energy.
  • We accumulate information from the instant modes of Torah learning to which we are privileged with easy access. However, we are nourished by original Torah thought, deep exposure to primary sources and the innovation that flows naturally from the investment of our mental and spiritual energy.

Yaacov didn’t ask for a short-cut to Torah excellence. He didn’t need an energy snack for his long journey ahead. He wanted to be able to continue with his mental and spiritual toil in the depths of Torah research. He asked for nourishment, not for nutrition. He pleaded for the bread of Torah, for the wisdom that is the fruit of toil. Hashem didn’t promise Yaacov nutrition, nor does He promise Geirim nutrition. He promises them nourishment. כי לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם , for life is nourished by more than bread alone.


[1] It is interesting that Akillas had cause to frequent the studies of both R Eliezer and R Yehoshua, because they both oversaw his translation of the Tanach into Greek. Akillas appears to have been a student of Rabbi Akiva though.

[2] Translation by R Zeev Wolff Einhorn of the word “tallit” in this context.