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Spirits in a Material World

Spirits in a Material World


The Torah sometimes says something of fundamental importance in what seems like a minor and incidental comment. There is a fine example of this near the beginning of today’s Parshah.

Last week, we read of how Moses was sent by G‑d to lead the Israelites to freedom, and how his initial efforts met with failure. Not only did Pharaoh not agree to let the people go; he made the working conditions of the Israelites even worse. They The people did not listen to Moseshad to make the same number of bricks as before, but now they had to gather their own straw. The people complained to Pharaoh, then they complained to Moses, then Moses complained to G‑d. “Why have You brought trouble to this people? Why did You send me?”

At the beginning of this week’s Parshah, G‑d tells Moses that he will indeed bring the Israelites to freedom, and tells him to announce this to the people. Then we read this:

So Moses told this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him, because their spirit was broken and because the labor was harsh. 1

The italicized phrase seems simple enough. The people did not listen to Moses, because he had brought them messages from G‑d before, and they had done nothing to improve their situation. They were busy trying to survive day by day. They had no time for utopian promises that seemed to have no grounding in reality. Moses had failed to deliver in the past. They had no reason to think he would do so in the future. So far, so straightforward.

But there is something more subtle going on beneath the surface. When Moses first met G‑d at the burning bush, G‑d told him to lead, and Moses kept refusing on the grounds that the people would not listen to him. He was not a man of words. He was slow of speech and tongue. He was a man of “uncircumcised lips.” He lacked eloquence. He could not sway crowds. He was not an inspirational leader.

It turned out, though, that Moses was both right and wrong: right that they did not listen to him, but wrong about why. It had nothing to do with his failures as a leader or a public speaker. In fact, it had nothing to do with Moses at all. They did not listen “because their spirit was broken and because the labor was harsh.” In other words: If you want to improve people’s spiritual situation, first improve their physical situation. That is one of the most humanizing aspects of Judaism.

Maimonides emphasizes this in The Guide for the Perplexed.2 The Torah, he says, has two aims: the wellbeing of the soul and the wellbeing of the body. The wellbeing of the soul is something inward and spiritual, but the wellbeing of the body requires a strong society and economy, where there is the rule of law, division of labor and the promotion of trade. We have bodily wellbeing when all our physical needs are supplied, but none of us can do this on our own. We specialize and exchange. That is why we need a good, strong, just society.

Spiritual achievement, says Maimonides, is higher than material achievement, but we need to ensure the latter first, because “a person suffering from great hunger, thirst, heat or cold cannot grasp an idea even if it is communicated by others, much less can he arrive at it by his own reasoning.” In other words, if we lack basic physical needs, there is no way we can reach spiritual heights. When people’s spirits are broken by harsh labor, they cannot listen to a Moses. If you want to improve people’s spiritual situation, first improve their physical conditions.

This idea was given classic expression in modern times by two New York Jewish psychologists, Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) and Frederick Herzberg (1923–2000). Maslow was fascinated by the question of why many people never reached their full potential. He also believed—as, later, did Martin Seligman, creator of Positive Psychology—that psychology should focus not only on the cure of illness but also on the positive promotion of mental health. His most famous contribution to the study of the human mind was his “hierarchy of needs.”

We are not a mere bundle of wants and desires. There is a clear order to our concerns. Maslow enumerated five levels. First are our physiological needs: for food and shelter, the basic requirements of survival. Next come safety needs: protection against harm done to us by others. Third is our need for love and belonging. Above that comes our desire for recognition and esteem, and higher still is self-actualization: fulfilling our potential, becoming the person we feel we could and should be. In his later years Maslow added a yet higher stage: self-transcendence, rising beyond the self through altruism and spirituality.

Herzberg simplified this whole structure by distinguishing between physical and psychological factors. He called the first Adam needs, and the second, Abraham needs. Herzberg was particularly interested in what motivates people at work. What he realized in the late 1950s—an idea revived more recently by American-Israeli economist Dan Ariely—is that money, salary and financial rewards (stock options and the like) is not the only motivator. People do not necessarily work better, harder or more creatively the more you pay them. Money works up to a certain level, but beyond that the real motivator is the challenge to grow, create, find meaning, and to invest your highest talents in a great cause. Money speaks to our Adam needs, but meaning speaks to our Abraham needs.

There is a truth here that Jews and Judaism have tended to note and live by more fully than many other civilizations and faiths. Most religions are cultures of acceptance. There is poverty, hunger and disease on earth because that is the way the world is; that is how G‑d made it and wants it. Yes, we can find happiness, nirvana or bliss, but to achieve it you must escape from the world by meditation, or retreating to a monastery, or by drugs or trances, or by waiting patiently for the joy that awaits us in the world to come. Religion anesthetizes us to pain.

That Ours is a religion of protestisn’t Judaism at all. When it comes to the poverty and pain of the world, ours is a religion of protest, not acceptance. G‑d does not want people to be poor, hungry, sick, oppressed, uneducated, deprived of rights or subject to abuse. He has made us His agents in this cause. He wants us to be His partners in the work of redemption. That is why so many Jews have become doctors fighting disease, lawyers fighting injustice or educators fighting ignorance. It is surely why they have produced so many pioneering (and Nobel Prize–winning) economists. As Michael Novak (citing Irving Kristol) writes:

Jewish thought has always felt comfortable with a certain well-ordered worldliness, whereas the Christian has always felt a pull to otherworldliness. Jewish thought has had a candid orientation toward private property, whereas Catholic thought—articulated from an early period chiefly among priests and monks—has persistently tried to direct the attention of its adherents beyond the activities and interests of this world to the next. As a result, tutored by the law and the prophets, ordinary Jews have long felt more at home in this world, while ordinary Catholics have regarded this world as a valley of temptation and as a distraction from their proper business, which is preparation for the world to come.3

G‑d is to be found in this world, not just the next. But for us to climb to spiritual heights, we must first have satisfied our material needs. Abraham was greater than Adam, but Adam came before Abraham. When the physical world is harsh, the human spirit is broken, and people cannot then hear the word of G‑d, even when delivered by a Moses.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said it well: “Don’t worry about the state of someone else’s soul and the needs of your body. Worry about the needs of someone else’s body and the state of your own soul.”

Alleviating poverty, curing disease, ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights: these are spiritual tasks no less than prayer and Torah study. To be sure, the latter are higher, but the former are prior. People cannot hear G‑d’s message if their spirit is broken and their labor harsh.

Book 3, chapter 27.
Michael Novak, This Hemisphere of Liberty (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1990), 64.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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louise leon PA, USA January 16, 2018

Criticism of the Vatican unfounded I reread the article, not realizing/remembering that I had read and commented on it in 2016. So much for my memory.
It remains totally interesting and elucidating.
Responding to the criticism of the Vatican, please note that Pope Francis is the "pope of the downtrodden and forlorn".
He doesn't preach from "on high" as other popes have done in the past. He's one of my favorite people on earth. Reply

brett summerland bc January 7, 2018

asceticism That is an inspirational piece of work!

Novak's words showing difference between Judaism and Catholic worldview is important today. Look at how the Vatican views Jerusalem verses us people of the Torah. Vatican takes a lofty (ascetic) view claiming a more spiritual understanding.
And in doing so they deny the material truths of the City of the Great King.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Reply

Julie Boston February 17, 2016

Helpful As technology continues to boom, the more we try to pull away from our primordial needs. However, our genetic coding always brings us back to this level. This is why there are so many unhappy souls on this plane and why there is such a great dissatisfaction with relationships and marriages. If we can not obtain self-sufficiency, we look for a co-dependent relationship to fulfill those missing needs. A relationship with two self-sufficient people is strong because the two do not need each other to fulfill primordial needs. Both partners bring much value to the relationship and each other. It is at this point that higher good can be done. Reply

Natasha Massachusetts January 9, 2016

Love this. I've always felt so much was put into waiting for enjoyment or reward in the next life, when there are so many blessings and rewards right here as well. Reply

eazyigz fort lee, nj January 9, 2016

Nice explanation. Thank you for this lucid explanation of human needs as they relate this this week's par'sha. I didn't realize that Maslow's hierarchy of needs is actually related to what we learn in the Torah. Reply

Amin Wahyudi Rembang, Indonesia January 8, 2016

Physical need is elastic To what extend a physical need is (able to be regard as) "fulfilled" while the need is "elastic". The more income I get the more I need of e.g better food, better sanitation etc. Coming to an ideal condition would be a life long struggle / depression. When does one start fulfilling Abraham needs? Reply

louise leon Pennsylvania, USA January 6, 2016

thank you Wonderful, totally meaningful, insightful article.
You could have been a terrific social worker had you not chosen the path of a super rabbi. Reply

Araceli Faial Cordeiro Belem-Brazil(Para) January 6, 2016

Thank You so much Rabbi Jonathaan Sacks for this important article,it is like drops of light bringing forth to the understanding. Reply

Anonymous Kanata January 6, 2016

I love this perspective Thank you. Interpretation and philosophy like yours puts the antiquity of the Tanya into perspective. Nothing like progress! Reply

Tone Lechtzier Or. US January 5, 2016

Shalom Rabbi Sacks, a broken spirit, heart, harsh conditions, health issues, and poverty, are also paths to spiritual assent.
"All comes from Above." [ Ezekiel ]
Blessings ~ Tone Reply

Brenda Toronto, Canada January 5, 2016

Raising Our Spirit Above This World Maslow's hierarchy of needs move us in an egoistic direction - to achieve for our self - first to survive, then towards status in society, then the more noble aspirations towards knowledge... then finally our spirit awakens to get out of this egoistic world - for all humanity to transcend this world.

Harsh blows will be dealt at our egoistic given nature and greedy aspirations in order to push us towards a higher level of existence, above our egoistic pursuits!

We need a world organized to distribute fairly our survival needs in order for us to move to a new level of spiritual existence. That transition time has come and we are behind schedule. Reply

zahava green Baltimore January 2, 2016

thank you so much, Rabbi Sacks! I look forward to your amazing articles every week. I learn so much from them. Reply

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