Abraham Maslow, in his Theory of Motivations, famously organized man’s needs in the form of a hierarchical pyramid, with physiological needs at its base and self-actualization at its apex. Victor Frankl clarified that self-actualization cannot, in fact, be attained as a goal but only as a side effect of self-transcendence – i.e., to truly self-actualize one must give oneself over to a cause greater than oneself. For Judaism, that “cause” is the cause of all causes, God Himself. In giving oneself over to God’s will, man transcends himself, thereby connecting to God and fulfilling his very purpose in creation.
Now, while Maslow explained that once a physiological need is satisfied it ceases to be a motivator, I believe that the “need” continues to play a critical role in man’s endeavor toward self-transcendence. For, according to Judaism, man is not the chance result of innumerous coincidences but the purposive product of meticulous design. As such, man was created – with all his needs – in order to fulfill his purpose of connecting to God.
Maslow lists among the fundamental physiological needs: breathing, sleeping, sex and eating. How do these serve to connect man to God?
Of breath, the Torah states: “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Our every breath connects us to God, reminding us that without this connection we would cease to be “a living soul.” And so the psalmist concludes, “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord” (Ps. 150:6).
Sleep, beyond being a method for physiological repair, restoration and even information consolidation, serves to reconnect us to our spiritual source. The Talmud (Berachot 57b) teaches that during sleep one’s soul returns, in some small way, to its source; and that in dreaming one gains, in some small way, prophetic insight.
Regarding sex, the Talmud (Sotah 14a) explains that man connects to God through emulation. In performing the physiological act of sex man emulates God as Creator, bringing forth life itself. As an aside, there is more to sexual intimacy than this, as noted by both Maslow, who includes it in the “Love/Belonging” stage of his pyramid, and Judaism, which notes that the bond formed through the act is likened to the bond to be formed with God.
Eating, I submit, deserves special attention, because eating enables man, more than any of the other physiological needs, to connect to God. Interestingly, this can be seen most readily in the sacrificial rites that we begin reading about this week in the book of Leviticus.
It is written in Ezekiel (41:22): “The altar, three cubits high, and the length thereof two cubits, was of wood, and so the corners; the length thereof and the walls thereof, were also of wood; and He said unto me: This is the table that is before the Lord.” [The verse] begins with the altar and ends with the table? R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish both explain: At the time when the Temple stood, the altar made atonement for a person; now a person’s table makes atonement for him. (Hagigah 27a)
The sages interpreted similitude in form to indicate similitude in function – concluding that both the table and the altar provide atonement. “Atonement,” writes Dr. Steve Bailey in his Yom Kippur Study, “is a transcendent dynamic which allows for a complete reconciliation between the individual and God.” One way this dynamic is effected, explains Rabbi Hirsch (Leviticus, p.6), is through the “sacrifice”:
The idea of korban (sacrifice) … can only be understood from the meaning which lies in its root “karev.” Karev means to approach, to come near, and so to get into a close relationship with somebody. This at once most positively gives the idea of the object and purpose of hakrava, the act of bringing a sacrifice, as the attainment of a higher sphere of life … It is nearness to God (kirvat Elokim) which is striven for by korban.
Putting it all together, the altar is the vehicle for atonement effected through the korban brought thereon. Interestingly, Rabbi Moshe Isserles took the analogy of table/altar one step further and stated: “the table is like the altar, and the eating like a sacrifice” (Oreh Hayim 167:5). As such, just as the altar and the korban effectuate nearness to God, so too do “the table” and “the eating.” But how does the table provide atonement? And in what way is eating like a sacrifice?
The answer lies in the uniqueness of the physiological need to eat, which, unlike the other physiological needs, is the only one which man is required to expend exorbitant amounts of time, energy and resources to fulfill – breathing is free and effortless; sleeping takes time, but requires no effort or resources; and the sexual act qua act requires little time, effort or resources.
This demanding need to eat was designed into the relationship between man and God from the outset of creation. When man was first placed in the Garden, God instructed him to “work it and guard it” (Gen. 2:15), indicating that man must take an active role in insuring his food supply (Radak, et al). And if man needed to invest in his sustenance while in the Garden, this task was made all the more difficult following his sin and expulsion from God’s immediacy in the Garden. God told Adam, “cursed is the ground for your sake, in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (Gen. 3:17). Rabbi Hirsch explains the term “for your sake” to mean that man, now distanced from his Creator, has the means to atone, to return, to come close (l’hitkarev) through his toil to eat.
If not for the fact that man was created with the need for sustenance and, furthermore, placed in an environment necessitating effort to fulfill that need, he might never have sought his Creator, being perfectly content at having no physiological deficits demanding his attention. That man must eat, and must toil to do so, accords him the potential to look heavenward for assistance. And it is in this simple glance heavenward that man develops a relationship with his Creator and Provider. “The table and the eating” are like “the altar and the sacrifice,” for both bring man close to God.
And while it is true that man cannot, in general, seek fulfillment of “higher motivations” toward self-transcendence while burdened with physiological deficits, nevertheless it is in this basic motivation “to put food on the table” that man learns to acknowledge God for his every need. Conversely, if man does not internalize this relationship, even when his lower needs have been met and he is driven by “higher motivations,” his journey up the pyramid toward self-transcendence may lead more to self and less to transcendence, as intimated in the verse, “But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked … and he forsook God who made him, and contemned the Rock of his salvation.” (Deut. 32:15).
As stated at the outset, man’s purpose in creation is self-transcendence through closeness with his Creator. And though the journey is made through fulfilling ever ascending stages of needs and motivations, they are not disassociated. Man is an organic whole, with all his needs designed to enable him to fulfill his purpose of connecting to his Creator. Man, as such, must apply his whole being toward the fulfillment of purpose and must see every deficit as an opportunity to transcend rather than simply a burden to surmount. Or, as King Solomon said, “In all your ways know Him” (Prov. 3:6).