In Parashat Eikev, we read:
“A human being does not live on bread alone…” (Deut. 8:3)
Found on inspirational posters, T-shirts, and in the titles of a great many cookbooks, this short statement constitutes one of the most well-known phrases from Eikev and from the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole. Colloquially, the phrase has come to mean that mere physical sustenance is not sufficient for a life of fulfillment; rather, people need and desire spiritual and cultural nourishment as well. Many Jewish commentaries have noted that in context, this phrase actually insinuates close to the opposite of our conventional understanding; rather, human beings can survive on things other than bread. Or as Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut notes in the essays to this portion, “God taught you in the wilderness that your needs could be met by whatever means God chose” — and not just bread (The Torah: A Modern Commentary: rev. ed. [NY: CCAR Press, 2005] p.1,241).
Both the colloquial and the common Jewish understanding of this phrase shift the focus away from the realm of the physical. And yet, Parashat Eikev as a whole spends a lot of time emphasizing and alluding to the corporeal. The language of the parashah abounds in a preponderance of physicality. We are immediately inundated with references to our fleshly selves:
“[God] will favor you and bless you and multiply you — blessing your issue from the womb…” (Deut.7:13)
“the wondrous acts that you saw with your own eyes…” (Deut.7:19)
“[God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat… the clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years.” (Deut. 8:3-4).
“When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in…” (Deut. 8:12)
“Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours…” (Deut.11:24)
Moses also highlights his own bodily actions while narrating his role in the retelling of the story of the Golden Calf found in this portion:
“I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water.” (Deut. 9:9)
“Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them…” (Deut. 9:17)
“As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain.” (Deut. 9:21)
Even the common bodily metaphors repeat themselves in abundance in this portion. We read about God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Deut. 7:19;11:2), how we are a “stiff-necked people” (Deut. 9:6; 9:13; 10:16), and that we should “walk in God’s ways ... walk only in divine paths” (Deut.8:6;10:12).
This repeated emphasis on physicality subtly reminds us that we not only must engage our tradition intellectually and spiritually, but also we must literally embody our connection. We must reinforce our relationship to God and one another with our hands, eyes, mouths, and feet.
The Talmud frequently reminds us of the importance of our physical selves and of the need to cultivate our bodies in order to develop a more fulfilled life. In Bava Batra 12b we read, “Rabbi Avdimi from Haifa says: Before a person eats and drinks, he has two hearts, meaning his heart is unsettled because he is distracted by hunger. But after he eats and drinks, he has only one heart.” Rabbi Avdimi teaches us that we must pay attention to our hunger if we wish to focus.
In Shabbat 152a we learn, “the Sages taught in the name of Rabbi Meir: Grind food with your teeth and you will find in your feet the strength to carry your body.” Rabbi Meir stresses that we must feed ourselves if we want to move forward in life.
And finally, Sanhedrin 110b elucidates this passage from Malachi: “For behold the day is coming; it burns like a furnace, and all the arrogant and all who do wickedly shall be straw; and the day that is coming shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Malachi 3:19). The Talmud imparts that “root” refers to the soul and "branch" refers to the body. While our soul may be compared to the roots of a tree, our body is the branches. Here, the Talmud maintains that while our soul grounds and nourishes us, it is our body that literally reaches out into the world.
In accentuating the bodily dimension of our faith, Parashat Eikev complements the intellectual and spiritual facets of our relationship with God explored earlier in Deuteronomy through the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma. These three sections — the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma in Parashat Va-et’chanan and all of Parashat Eikev — collectively comprise Moses’ second oration in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 4:44-11:25), according to the structural interpretation of Deuteronomy presented in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (pp. 1,184-1,227). Through this second oration, then, Moses inspires and challenges us to contemplate and reflect on each of these individual aspects of our faith: the intellectual, the spiritual, and physical.