Torah's Hierarchy of Needs
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
“If there is no flour there is no Torah; if there is no Torah there is no flour.” (Ethics of the Fathers 3:21)
The first part of this teaching is easy to understand. If one has no food and cannot sustain one’s basic physical needs, one cannot study the spiritual wisdom of the Torah. Maharal explains further that Torah study requires peace of mind. If one is constantly worried about one’s livelihood, one does not have the peace of mind required for deep Torah study. This is the reason the priestly blessings begin as follows: “Hashem should bless you and watch over you.” (Numbers 6:24) Rashi explains this blessing as a blessing for increased physical possessions which provide us with a livelihood. The priests are charged with blessing the nation with possessions and the ability to secure those possessions. Without this financial possession and security, there can be no Torah.
Once there is flour, Torah can be studied. Therefore, the second priestly blessing is: “May the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you and favor you.” (Numbers 6:25) Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that this is a blessing for God to open our eyes and reveal amazing insights into Torah and God’s actions.
The real question is on the second part of the teaching from Pirkei Avot. There are many people with no knowledge or insight into Torah wisdom who, nonetheless, have been blessed with tremendous financial resources and security. Given this fact, what is the meaning of: “If there is no Torah there is no flour”? Maharal explains this as follows: financial security should not be the goal, but, rather, a catalyst to provide one with the peace of mind necessary for spiritual Torah study. Spiritual study and development, which lead to self-actualization, are the goals. Since the entire goal of life is to reach this higher level of meaning, if one does not have spiritual advancement, then financial resources are effectively rendered meaningless.
This is what is meant by: “If there is no Torah there is no flour.” If there is no Torah, then flour is rendered meaningless. This explains the celebration of Shavuot – we celebrate the fact that God gave us the ultimate guidebook for a life of purpose, growth, and meaning. May God bless us all with financial security to achieve our goal of spiritual advancement and of making a unique contribution to mankind.