Lazer Gurkow

Our Inherent Need to Matter

Would you rather earn a meager salary or be a kept man or woman and live in luxury? Most people like to live in luxury, but not at the price of their self-image and soul.

Reflecting on our early history, G-d lovingly proclaimed to Jeremiah (2:2), “Go and call out in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: So, said G-d, I remember for your sake the lovingkindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown.”

Everyone knows the desert is inhospitable. G-d described it as “great and awesome . . . with snakes, vipers, scorpions, and drought, where there was no water” (Deuteronomy 8:15). To willingly leave a metropolis for an arid, dangerous, unlivable place on G-d’s instruction demonstrated a great deal of faith in G-d. G-d remembered it lovingly even when our ancestors sinned.

Lap of Luxury
Yet, there is a problem with this thesis. We learn in our Torah portion that our ancestors journeyed through the desert enveloped by a miraculous canopy of clouds that shielded them from the elements.

Rashi, the famed eleventh century biblical commentator, explained (Numbers 8:34), “Seven clouds are recorded in the account of their travels: four from the four sides, one above, one below, and one in front of them which would flatten the high land, raise the hollows and destroy snakes and scorpions.” Elsewhere (Deuteronomy 8:9), Rashi states, “The clouds of glory would rub their clothes and clean them so that they looked like freshly laundered clothes. As their children grew, their clothes grew along with them, like a snail’s shell, which expands with the snail.”

Our ancestors did not brave the desert elements. It is true that they did not know they would be protected when they first embarked for the desert, but it became obvious the moment they entered the desert. They never experienced a shred of desert discomfort so why was G-d so enamored with them?

The answer can be found in the very words that G-d said to Jeremiah. G-d did not describe the desert as a barren, arid environment. He described it as a “land not sown.” A place where you can’t plant. Why did G-d choose one of the softest challenges of this harsh climate? So, what if you can’t plant? G-d provided for their needs. A daily ration of Mana from heaven and an unending water supply from a miraculous well that flowed from a rolling stone.

When examining biblical texts, it is often the subtle irregularities that hold the key to the deep messages the texts convey. Indeed, G-d was not referring to the lack of arable land and food supply in the desert. On the contrary, G-d was referring to the fact that everything was so plentifully available in the desert that one did not even need to sow in order to reap.

Our ancestors had their every last need provided for without needing to lift a finger. When G-d directed them to the desert, they would have known that He would provide for them. And being provided for can be a serious hardship.

Bread of Shame
We began this article by asking if you would rather earn a meager salary than be a kept man or woman in luxury. The Talmud (Baba Metziah 38a) famously posits that one would rather have one measure one earned than receive nine measures for free. This phenomenon is known as “bread of shame.” There is inherent shame involved in receiving unearned largess (Jerusalem Talmud, Arlah 1:3).

As the Jews left Egypt and were directed toward the desert they must have thought of this shame. They were exchanging one disempowerment for another. Before they were in the hands of Egyptian overlords, now they would be a kept people in G-d’s hands. You can’t compare the torture of slavery to the drudgery of unearned largess, but in both cases, you are not free to be yourself.

Surely, the Jews yearned for nothing more than to finally be their own people. To sweat, toil, and earn bread. To eat from the produce of their own hands. When G-d directed them to the desert they would have known that G-d would provide for them, and this would have placed a drain on their souls.

It was not just the moment when they were told to head for the desert before they knew the clouds would protect them. It was the entire forty years that they spent in the desert. It sounds idyllic to be kept and provided for; every whim and wish immediately served on a silver platter. But it does not take long before you pine to achieve something of your own. You would grow weary from the bread of shame.

There are thousands of children who grew up in the lap of luxury who are unable to live a healthy balanced life. Their wealthy parents gave them everything, they don’t need to work a day in their lives, but this is precisely their downfall. They feel useless. They create nothing, they produce nothing, at least nothing that others depend on. No one needs them. No one depends on them. They don’t matter.

Would anyone take on this meaningless life willingly? It goes against our very grain. Jewish mystics argue that this is precisely why G-d brought souls from Heaven and placed them in physical bodies. In Heaven, our souls sat in the lap of G-d surrounded by spiritual luxuries. But they were unhappy because they did nothing to deserve it. It was provided for free. It was bread of shame. So, G-d placed our souls into physical bodies where we earn everything we have. We work to earn our bread, our shelter, and our spiritual achievements. This makes us happy.

Yet, our ancestors willingly followed G-d’s direction and headed for the desert where they would be a kept people.

G-d Reciprocates
This is what G-d appreciated. This is why G-d told Jeremiah to proclaim to the streets of Jerusalem that G-d will never forget the devotion and love of the Jewish people at the time of their youth, the epoch of their nuptials. You embraced something that held no promise to you, it did nothing for you. You did it for me. Because I asked. You made the ultimate sacrifice for love.

When the Jews sinned and were worthy of exile, G-d assured the prophet that He would never allow them to slip into distinction. They might have earned the ultimate punishment by their actions. But, as they gave G-d what He wanted in their youth, G-d would grant them what they wanted and needed.

G-d kept His promise. Throughout our turbulent history, He always kept us and remained at our side. Despite the many upheavals and annihilations, despite the Pogroms, Crusades, and Genocides, we survived. And as we survived in the past, so will we survive in the present and future.

With one caveat. We are no longer in the desert. Our Divine blessings don’t come for free. Today, we are able and expected to earn our protection and security. We are in the delightful position of being able to work for our blessings and deserve them. We can make ourselves indispensable. Not only to others, but also to G-d. Indeed, we can ensure by our actions that we matter. On a cosmic scale.

Then G-d will provide a stream of blessings, prosperity, protection, security, serenity, and happiness. What’s more, they will be well earned and well deserved.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at