Re’eh: I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re continuing our stroll through the latter half of the book of
Yeshayahu, or Isaiah, from which the seven “haftarot of consolation”
are taken, read at this season leading up to Rosh Hashana.

Themes in the haftarah this week include God’s role as creator and the
eternal nature of the Davidic kingship, as well as the putative
tension between our spiritual needs and our material needs:

“Ho, all who are thirsty,
Come for water,
Even if you have no money;
Come, buy food and eat:
Buy food without money,
Wine and milk without cost.

Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
Your earnings for what does not satisfy?

Give heed to Me,
And you shall eat choice food
And enjoy the richest viands.

Incline your ear and come to Me;
Hearken, and you shall be revived.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 55:1-3)

These verses are among those which demonstrate the silliness of the
claim to take the Bible “literally,” given that the plain meaning of
these verses is, most likely, best understood as metaphor: the people
are hungering for spiritual instruction, for hope and faith, but are
misled (or misfed, as it were) by the idolatry and materialism
surrounding them. To be fair- one could interpret these verses as
promising material abundance to the people upon their redemption, but
I don’t think that’s the simplest way to understand the passage in
context.

Rather, I think “spending money for what is not bread” means both
literally spending money and also spending our time and energy. We all
hunger for purpose, meaning, love, depth, aliveness, vitality- if
these are not nurtured in positive ways, then we tend to do things to
satisfy our longings but which prove illusory. “Bread” in this context
means a true nourishment- not just of the body but of the soul.
(Apologies to those on the Atkins diet.) It wasn’t the Rolling Stones
who pointed out that human beings have a hard time getting
satisfaction- our great spiritual traditions have long taught that the
path to fulfillment can never be pleasure for its own sake, or
material goods in themselves, or the magical thinking of flimsy
religion. Rather, fulfillment- or enlightenment, if you prefer- can
only come from being called to a greater purpose, which in our passage
is understood as hearing the voice of the Divine.

In this reading, there is no inherent tension between satisfying one’s
body and satisfying one’s soul. This is not about asceticism – it’s
about putting our needs in context, and realizing that our need for
purpose is what gives ultimate meaning – even pleasure- to our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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