An elderly woman from Brooklyn decided to prepare her will and make her final requests. She told her rabbi she had two final requests. First, she wanted to be cremated, and second, she wanted her ashes scattered in Bloomingdales.

"Bloomingdales!" the rabbiShe wanted her ashes scattered in Bloomingdales exclaimed. "Why Bloomingdales?"

"Then I'll be sure my daughters visit me twice a week."

A Divine Need

They shall gather each day's allotment [of manna] on its day”Exodus, 16:5

The above verse describes the process for the Jewish people to procure manna, the daily ration of cracker-like food they lived on throughout their 40-year stay in the desert.

The Talmud records the following exchange between the great talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his disciples, who asked:

“Why did not the manna come down for Israel once a year?” He replied: “I shall give a parable. This may be compared to a king of flesh and blood who had an only son, whom he provided with maintenance once a year, and he would visit his father once a year only. Thereupon he provided for his son’s maintenance every day, so that he call on him every day. The same is with Israel. One who had four or five children would worry, saying: ‘Perhaps no manna will come down tomorrow, and all will die of hunger?’ Thus they would turn their attention to their Father in Heaven.”1

The common way of understanding the purpose of the manna exercise is that a nascent nation struggling with faith would foster trust in G‑d. Our ancestors’ daily sustenance arrived at their doorsteps in a supernatural manner each morning for 40 years to help heal and mold their spiritual worldview, in preparation for their next stage of spiritual development.

Upon settling the Promised Land, the nation would need to build a country from the bottom up, including a government, an economy and an army. Coming from an idyllic and spiritual mode of existence, where food fell from heaven and wars were fought by G‑d, they would need to acquire an appreciation for the natural order and a deep understanding of how the world works. The spiritual danger this new phase of history would present was that, as history has amply shown, once a nation becomes immersed in the natural order, they begin to place their trust in nature rather than in G‑d.

Manna, then, or “heavenly bread” as it is sometimes called, is often interpreted in Jewish thought to have been the antidote to materialism, a spiritual vaccine.

What Rabbi Shimon was suggesting to his students in the above exchange, however, was an entirely different, even opposite, explanation for the manna. Rabbi Shimon’s parable makes it clear that the reason G‑d had the manna fall daily, rather than annually, had less to do with engendering the people’s faith in Him than with His desire to connect with them.

Like parents whose lives revolve around their children, G‑d disclosed to us through the manna how important constant contact with His children is to Him. “Thereupon he provided for his maintenance every day, so that he call on him every day.”

Moreover, here we encounter a stunning insight into the desires of our Father in Heaven, and by extension, into our own human selves who were created “in His image.”

One of humanity’s greatest needs is the need to feel needed. It’s what makes us tick. Think about it: The greatest motivator for extraordinary human endeavor is a sense of purpose and mission. Money, fame and honor have pushed humans to do great things, but never as great as those things done in the name of bettering the world.

The knowledge or feeling that I am needed is what inspires life and vitality in so many, and unfortunately, in its absence, the basic will to live can be lost.

Consider the following story I heard from a dear friend. This man’s mother had moved from a small village in the Ukraine, where she had spent most of her life in the company of friends, to a bigger city to be closer to her children as she got older.

After a short period of time, she fell into a deep depression. My friend went to see the rabbi for advice. The rabbi suggested that the community “employ” his mother as the administrator of the community discretionary fund. Her job would be to receive the poor and needy people of the community, listen to their stories and consider their requests. The man took the rabbi’s advice, and a short time after his mother began her new job, her desire to live returned.

A related story is told about Shlomo Telushkin, the father of the prolific Jewish writer Joseph Telushkin.

Shlomo worked as an accountant for the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his predecessor, the Previous Rebbe. When he was left paralyzed and disoriented by a stroke in 1986, Shlomo got two phone calls every day from the Rebbe. One day, the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, conveyed an accounting question from the Rebbe for Shlomo to answer—and he answered successfully, despite being ill.

“I was profoundly moved,” Joseph recounted, “because I realized that what happened was that the Rebbe was sitting there in Brooklyn, dealing with all these major issues, and he could empathize with the situation of my father, who suddenly had his whole lifeWe never outgrow the basic need to feel productive turned upside down and was probably feeling quite irrelevant, lying in a hospital bed feeling his life perhaps was coming to an end, and he wanted to make my father feel useful and needed.”

No matter our condition, we never grow out of a basic need to feel productive and useful. Knowing this can inspire us to apply our moral imagination to those most in need of feeling needed.

On a practical note, now more than ever, with the average life expectancy increasing rapidly, we need to address the need to feel needed in the growing elderly demographic of society. We need to find ways to ensure that the final chapter of people’s lives is full of meaning and joy. The way to accomplish this is not (merely) by increasing awareness around the importance of visiting the elderly, which often only reinforces their sense of uselessness, but by introducing creative ways in which the elderly can be made to feel useful and productive until their last days.

By recognizing and addressing the need to feel needed in every human being we encounter, we bring honor to the One in whose image we were all created.