It is well established that today, in America, we do not have real poverty. Outside of edge cases (like those who are very sick), nobody starves to death. We live in the wealthiest time in the history of the world.
The incredible uniqueness of our situation in history is rarely appreciated. Once upon a biblical time, a gift of a few changes of clothing was a present given by a king. But now everyone can get a coat in the winter, or find shelter in the summer. Modern amenities like running water (hot AND cold!), sewers, electricity, comfortable transportation, air conditioning and heating were uncommon two generations ago, and unheard of not long before that.
So it makes sense that in the ancient world, people cared a great deal about not starving to death. But even then, some few, exceptional people stepped away from their daily routines and pressures, and asked fundamental questions: “What is the meaning of life?” More specifically, “What is the purpose of my life?”
The easy answer to that question, then and now, is that most lives are wasted opportunities. The vast majority of people really will live and die without making a meaningful contribution to the world. It is a refrain that supports the hedonistic contention that the purpose of life is merely to “seek happiness,” to have as much fun as possible before the lights go out.
The more common alternative, especially in non-Western societies is the attitude of acceptance, of the belief that fate and external forces control our world so comprehensively that the chances of any person making a difference are as good as stopping a tornado by throwing stones at it. This, of course, is the predominant viewpoint of many Eastern religions, the idea that the race or caste in which we are born, along with the stars and fortune, determines our future, and that there is no realistically plausible free will.
I think that both of these perspectives – hedonism and fate – are a form of poverty. It is a poverty of the soul, a belief that the only thing that really matters is the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we see – the passive enjoyment of externally-generated experiences and pleasures. This spiritual poverty leads to decadence and corruption, the twin destroyers of great civilizations in history. The patina of a sophisticated technological world, when scratched, reveals a primitive spirit of “might makes right,” where the ends always justify the means, where nothing matters except what we want, and the extent we can get it.
It comes down to what, in our hearts, sustain us as people and as a society and civilization. What do we live for, and why? Because if we live for nothing more than our pleasure, or our transient gender identity, then we are living for nothing at all.
The contrast of ancient civilizations is worth keeping in mind. Egypt was, for thousands of years, the most reliable breadbasket in the world. It was incredibly prosperous in its day, sustaining the highest density populations ever known. Egypt’s armies were technologically superior, capable of producing chariots and breeding horses.
But it was also spiritually bankrupt. Egyptians lived, and they died. For all its wealth, Egypt was the source of no great ideas that swept the world, no philosophies that founded Western Civilization, no great armadas or an overarching vision save for ongoing sustenance. Even Egypt’s greatest legacies to the modern world were merely grand tombs to the past, pyramids for the dead. Egypt was materialism incarnate. Fed by the reliable Nile, Egypt was the petri dish that innovated and perfected bread and beer, creating an insular society that was profoundly uninterested in the world around it.
There is a verse in the Torah that sums up Egypt – and Israel – perfectly.
When Joseph was taking over all of Egypt for Pharaoh (thanks to the famines), he purchased all the privately held land – except the land owned by the priests. The language is as follows:
רַ֛ק אַדְמַ֥ת הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים לֹ֣א קָנָ֑ה כִּי֩ חֹ֨ק לַכֹּהֲנִ֜ים מֵאֵ֣ת פַּרְעֹ֗ה וְאָֽכְל֤וּ אֶת־חֻקָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן לָהֶם֙ פַּרְעֹ֔ה עַל־כֵּ֕ן לֹ֥א מָכְר֖וּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָֽם׃ Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land. (Gen. 47:22)
What is this “allotment”? The word, transliterated as chok appears for the first time in the text here (which means its definition is found in this incidence). It is not a usual word for such a purpose, it is instead a word found later in the Torah, and in those later cases we generally understand that it means “A law given by G-d.” More subtly, it also refers to a law that would not be logically derived from rational principles (such as: “do not steal”).
But not in this – definitional – case. In this verse, a chok is something given by the king that sustains a people, that they can eat. This chok also allows them to be separate from everyone else.
This is also the core definition of the word for Jews. The difference is found in the contrast between Egypt and Israel.
The Egyptian priests are sustained by the chok, which they eat. Egypt was all about material prosperity. Indeed, Pharoah gives the Jewish slaves a chok, too: a required amount of bricks that needed to be made. The measure of a man was the physical product he produced.
The Jewish people are also sustained by a chok, but all such gifts from G-d are inedible, and they have nothing to do with work. They are, instead, all symbolic laws, like remembering to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt on Passover (which is the first time the text tells us of a chok given to the Jews). Egypt is the counterpoint, the mirror image of what Jews are supposed to aspire to.
Which leads us to a very simple, yet profound idea: Jews are not sustained by bread or wealth. Our sustenance is through the Law, as given by G-d. Not – we should emphasize – the kinds of normal civil laws that any rational society might derive. But instead, we are sustained by the laws that are uniquely Jewish, the laws given to us by our king that feed our souls, and allow us to be apart from all other peoples.
It is no coincidence that in that specific verse it refers to “Cohanim”, the Hebrew for “priests.” In virtually every case, “priests” in the Torah are Aaron or his descendants – but not here. The text is drawing a parallel for us, because we Jews are commanded to “be a nation of priests.” Our chok, our portion, sustains us and keep us from the spiritual poverty that plagues the entire world, the world that measures wealth through material possessions.
We know from history that this is not mere fancy. A purpose-driven life is one in which our ancestors, for hundreds of generations, found spiritual meaning. We are the next links in the chain, essential for the future, but also integrally connected to the past. Jewish Law has not sustained us because of all the “normal” kinds of laws, like our civil code (which exists, in some recognizable form, in most societies). Those laws are given a different name in the Torah: mishpat. A mishpat is recognizable anywhere, dealing with adjudication between parties, or torts.
But a chok is different. These laws are sometimes resistant to ready explanations, but they always contain deep symbolism that speaks directly to meaning, to our connections to other people and to G-d – such as the Exodus and the yearly commemoration that keeps the Jewish people connected through a shared common memory. “You shall observe this as a chok for all time, for you and for your descendants.” (Ex. 12:24) Egyptians lived and died by their allotments from the king. Jews live (and can spiritually live long after our bodies have perished) through the laws given to us by our king.