The Trap of Sustenance (Bamidbar)
It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living. — Jean Jacques Rousseau
At the opening of the Book of Numbers, we have a noteworthy confluence of space and time. The Torah describes how God spoke to Moses. It tells us that it was in the desert of Sinai, in the Tabernacle, starting from the more general geographic description (desert) and then giving us the very specific location (Tabernacle). The verse continues to tell us that it was on the first day of the second month of the second year of the Exodus, namely the very specific day of the month, followed by the more general month of the year and the even more general year.
The Bat Ayin on Numbers 1:1 wonders why in describing space, the Torah starts with the general coordinates and narrows to the more specific location, but in describing time, it starts with the specific day and expands outward to the more general markers of month and year.
He answers that it has to do with man’s ongoing challenge of making a livelihood.
He explains that there is a trap laid in front of every person, the trap of having to make a living. We are ensnared by the belief that “the strength of my arm” is what provides sustenance. Believing exclusively in our own efforts, our own intelligence and our own guile, easily leads to the temptation of cutting corners, be it ethical or legal. The constant pressure of having to provide for ourselves and those in our charge makes it very easy to justify immoral behavior. If my income, my livelihood, and my family’s financial security are wholly dependent on my winning in the capitalistic game we find ourselves in, then the ends may justify the means, and we allow ourselves to lie, cheat, steal or otherwise engage in corrupt activities.
The solution, the Bat Ayin suggests, is hinted at in the structure of the verse. The nation of Israel starts off in the desert of Sinai, where they demonstrate the first stages of faith, of believing in God, and a willingness to accept and follow His commandments. They then progress to the next stage of building a Tabernacle for God to dwell amongst them. The order of the dates in the verse makes similar hints. The second month reminds us of the second month of the first year of the Exodus, when Israel receives the heavenly bread, the Maan, on a daily basis. That starts to build Israel’s confidence and reliance on God. The second year is when the Tabernacle is built, and having a tangible sense of God’s presence creates an even greater level of confidence.
Hence the solution to the trap of sustenance is to increase our faith and confidence in God, in stages. When we realize that it is God who ultimately determines our success and part of His desire is for us to be ethical, law-abiding citizens, then we can be more relaxed in our material pursuits. God has brought us to the specific place and circumstances we find ourselves in. We need to make our own responsible efforts, but ultimately, God decides as to the results of those efforts.
May we develop our faith and confidence in God’s sustenance, step by step.
To my friend, Rabbi Alan Haber, on the launch of his new educational initiative, Am Levadad. Highly recommended.