Parashat Ekev: The Great Paradox of Abundance
Honestly, in writing these words, I felt uncomfortable. I know that the words I will write, explaining the words of Moses to the Jewish people, could have been addressed to me thousands of years later. While I understand Moses’s words, I cannot say that I have always lived these words. Those present probably could not live his values either. My guess is that many of you will relate because I know that I am not alone in this struggle.
In Moses’s great oration which is the book of Deuteronomy, he promised that the Jewish people are about to go into a good land:
For your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God for the good land given to you. (Deut. 8:7-10).
The land of Israel is described here in idyllic terms. It is almost as if the land freely offers its abundance. What is required of us? Moses states we are to cultivate a disposition of gratitude. In theological terms, gratitude is expressed in the capacity to recognize the Divine blessings which surround us. No other ritual more aptly embodies this attitude than Birkat HaMazon, grace after meal. Moses declares, “give thanks to your God for the good land given to you.” While the rabbis legislate the amount needed to be eaten which would generate the obligation to say this blessing, the Torah obligates the blessing not simply when one eats, but when one eats and is satiated. In essence the blessing is not simply on food- we say a blessing on food before we eat. Rather, the act of eating and satiety provides the correct moment to reflect on not only the blessings of sustenance, but blessings in general. In the birkat hamazon we bless God for our lives, for our food, for the kindness shown to us (birkat hazan), for the land of Israel, for the Torah (birkat al ha’aertz v’al hamazon), for Jerusalem (birkat boneh berachamav) and for all goods in this world (birkat hametiv).
It is often said that there are no atheists in foxholes -that during times of stress people will be driven to embrace a higher power. This makes sense, as people recognize their vulnerability and recognize that in truth their very security is dependent upon that which is outside themselves. In other words, the very lack of human agency compels a person to look outward – and upward- for help. However, what is the response when a person does have power, does have abundance, and does have agency. The Torah recognizes the real temptation to forget God altogether, and attribute blessings to oneself. Ironically, the very blessings that God provides us create the temptation itself!
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Deut. 8:12-14).
If one remembers God at the moment of deprivation of blessing, certainly one should feel God’s presence with an abundance of blessings. If I am surrounded by those things which I need, and even by those things I don’t, shouldn’t I be even more attuned to the fortune that is afforded to me? Yet, this seems not to be human nature, and the Torah is aware of the psychology of most individuals. The individual rather will claim that “it was my own power that brought this success about” (Deut. 8:17). The very agency afforded to the person by God is ascribed to themselves. The very fact that the Torah must legislate an act of blessing after meals which by definition should be natural and obvious teaches us something fundamental about the human heart. We do not want to express gratitude, because gratitude also expresses dependence and indebtedness.
It is at this very juncture that Moses reminds them of another time, a time of the wilderness. There, the people were tested by the miraculous daily portion of the heavenly manna. What exactly is the test of the manna? Every day they had food to eat! But herein lies the challenge: in the desert people could not plan for tomorrow, nor could they store the manna for another day, as the Torah says it would rot. Thus, despite the fact that they received food from the heavens, every day they were vulnerable to the forbidding wilderness; they could not amass any wealth, but all were living at a subsistence level. The wilderness is the very opposite of the land of Israel.
On the one hand, Moses is preparing the people for a time in which they will live in the land, produce their own goods, and reap the benefits of economic success. The capacity to have agency, to have security following forty years of vulnerability, is a desirable state of affairs. Living in the desert is decidedly not desirable. Yet, far from having them ‘move on’, Moses wants to imprint the experience of the desert into Jewish memory even when their material and economic world no longer reflects that reality. The people must simultaneously build houses, produce crops, and amass wealth, and at the very same time they must see themselves as citizens of the desert, utterly dependent upon God.
We must admit that Moses’s moral instruction has only been partly successful. In some religions wealth is absolutely eschewed. Many religious orders, including Christian monastic orders, renounce any wealth as part of their vows. Wealth and the power associated with it is necessarily corrupting, and the daily attention to production will necessarily turn one’s attention away from God. Yet, here and throughout Deuteronomy, abundance is seen as a blessing and reward for fulfilling the terms of the covenant with God. The capacity to farm, build cities, and engage in technological advances is in itself seen as positive. The amassing of wealth per se is not perceived as anything unnatural or bad. Indeed, the drive for more is biological in nature, rooted in our evolutionary history. For most of human history, our species faced existential insecurity with a real possibility of starvation. The experience of the Jewish people in the wilderness is not very different than most of human history.
However, mindfulness of times of scarcity is not simply a theological or moral teaching to increase gratitude, but contemporary psychologists have noted that this attitude and discipline increases human happiness. One of the great ironies is that our generation has more wealth than any other period in human history, yet we face an unprecedented crisis of depression and mental health. However, these two phenomena are interrelated. The relentless drive to ‘amass’ and ‘succeed’ is creating a generation of very unhappy and unfulfilled people. When flooded with blessing, people actually become unable to experience happiness, what Moses referred to as ‘satiety’. In a recent article in The Atlantic, the Harvard professor Arthur Brooks has noted that when one receives a gift, gains recognition or fame, or engages in new romantic relationships a person experiences a heightened moment of pleasure through the excretion of the chemical dopamine. When the brain is flooded by dopamine, in order to feel pleasure once again, one must seek another and more intense experience. In other words, paraphrasing Mic Jagger, Brooks states that in essence too much of a good thing is a bad thing, (It don’t bring no) satisfaction. The very act of pursuing satisfaction, the drive for pleasure, becomes the very source of dissatisfaction.
Arthur Brooks solution to this endless cycle is to begin to manage and detach from what we think we want and need. Those goods can be material, but they do not have to be. Power, fame, recognition, popularity are all values that drive us, but have the potential to be all consuming, and let’s face it. There will always be someone more famous, more popular, more successful. If we set goals in those things extrinsic to ourselves, we will constantly experience disappointment.
In Moses’s oration, he challenges us to think of the wilderness. On the one hand, he talks of a place of real danger and deprivation. At the same time, Moses is not simply describing the past, but he is reframing the past for the present. Surprisingly, Moses also describes the wilderness as an idyllic place; the wilderness is not only a foil to the abundance of the present. The wilderness, far from the pressures of the world and society, was a place in which you received simple bread, your clothing did not wear out, and your feet did not swell. All this deprivation was to teach and internalize a fundamental teaching, “a human being does not live on bread alone, but humanity lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:7). The clearing of the desert from all extraneous distractions taught us that true fulfillment comes from realizing our values and purposes in this world. The desert forces us to look upward, but also inward. The wilderness was a place completely outside the rat race and provides us the space to realize what truly is important. Seen this way, the wilderness can be experienced as a place of rejuvenation and recentering.
There is something called the ‘happiness curve’, in which happiness has been measured throughout the course of one’s life. Interestingly, the curve demonstrates that the nadir of happiness on average is in one’s forties in the United States, as those are the years of top productivity, of ‘pursuing’ material and immaterial goods. As one ages, surprisingly one becomes happier on average, and the main reason for this is that they often let go of attachments, relationships, goals, and ways of being which no longer serve them. They seek higher order goals that are related to meaning and self-realization.
Ultimately, in a world of abundance, Moses calls to the people to be mindful of what brings them real happiness. When they eat and are satiated, they should bless. The blessing should ultimately emerge from a place of ‘satiety’, from a place in which we realize we are truly happy. In blessing in abundance, Moses is asking us to remember our wilderness, and not simply because it was a place of deprivation. Moses is challenging us to consider the desert as the place in which we understood the key to living. We found our collective purpose in that desert, and that purpose will continue to provide us true happiness. As such, they should never forget that experience.
Nor should we.
 Arthur Brooks, “The Satisfaction Trap,” The Atlantic: March 2022, pp. 22-30
 This argument is the essential argument of Mark Manson’s very irreverent but nonetheless insightful book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life,