“A land in which without poverty you shall eat bread; you will not lack anything in it; a land whose rocks are like iron …. And you shall eat and be satiated” (Devarim 8: 9, 10)
As Moshe Rabbeinu continues his 36-day farewell speech to the Jewish people, he reveals to them the nature of the land wherein they will dwell after his passing. It will be a land where the Israelites will want for naught and where they will eat and be satisfied.
The verse cited above poses a difficulty. Why did Moshe Rabbeinu insert a phrase describing the iron-like hardness of the stones? What do the rocks of the Holy Land have to do with nourishment and satisfaction?
The Kli Yakar, zt”l, says that the “rocks” mentioned in the verse are not meant to be stones; rather, they are meant to be understood as the unique building blocks of the Holy Land — our Torah leaders — our talmidei chachamim. They are as hard as iron in the sense that, although the land lacks nothing, they choose to live an ascetic life, sustaining themselves on a diet that is basically bread and salt. As the verse states, “Not in poverty” — rather, in abundance — “you shall eat bread.”
The land is known for the seven varieties of produce with which it is blessed, but because the Torah learners are tough and strong they do not yield to physical temptation to live a life of luxury; rather, they choose the simple life. Their constant involvement in Torah study does not leave room for indulging in the finer things — even though they are available in abundance.
The verse continues by warning: “Don’t think that because Torah learners don’t eat the bountiful produce they grow to be sickly and weak. On the contrary, they grow to be hard like steel — BECAUSE they don’t indulge in the fat of the land.”
In an age where the abundance of wealth and prosperity has become commonplace, we, too, can learn a valuable lesson from this verse. When the populace of a prosperous state indulges in excess, rather than conserving and preserving for bad times, the people become soft and incapable of maintaining economic growth. Eventually, the palaces and monuments that they build will crumble. In America today we see that the years of prosperity have left our population overweight and lazy. Institutions that were thought to be invincible are revealing cracks in their foundations and an inability to withstand the pressure of bad financial news.
Those that heed the warning of the Torah and maintain a simple lifestyle even when times are good will survive the long-term cycles of inevitable ups and downs. If “lo b’miskenut tochal lechem” — if when times are not those of poverty, but rather of prosperity, you choose to live on lechem — i.e., bread [simply] — then you will become like rocks of iron able to withstand financial depression.
Availability does not mean necessity. Just because one has the financial ability to indulge does not make it necessary to do so. Even with the recent drops in the value of everyone’s portfolios, finer things still abound. Simplicity and frugality are the saving factors. One who lives by what one needs rather than what one has will become tough and strong to survive the winds of change.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.