Thursday, 10 Aug 2017

Written by Elliott Karstadt


V’achalta, v’savata, uverachta.


You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless. (Deuteronomy 8.10)


Parashat Eikev contains the line we sing in the middle of Birkat Hamazon, the blessing we say after satisfying one of the most basic human needs: eating.


In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper entitled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, in which he proposed his famous ‘hierarchy of needs’. Although a number of scholars have since questioned one or all of Maslow’s assertions, it still seems to me to offer a very good model by which to evaluate someone’s situation. Imagine a pyramid of all human needs, in which physiological ones come at the broad base (oxygen, food, water, sex, sleep etc.), then, increasing in height but decreasing in breadth, Maslow ranks safety, love/belonging, esteem (including respect by others and respect for others) and, finally, at the top of the pyramid, self-actualisation (including morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice etc.). I recently saw a version of Maslow’s hierarchy, with a huge new row at the bottom (below food, drink etc.) entitled ‘Wifi’.


This is not, I think, a case of the things at the top of the pyramid being more important. They are simply harder to achieve all the time. Part of the reason for that is that we often get bogged down with questions about the things at the bottom of the hierarchy, and we make the things at the top work to serve those at the bottom.


I have found this is often the case in community leadership. How many times are we in meetings in which ideas are introduced, only for practicalities to get in the way? Practical constraints are so often used as an excuse for not putting in the work to get an idea of the ground. And yes, proposed projects can so easily go wrong if we forget the details. But if all we see are the details, we lose sight of the bigger picture – the reasons why we wanted to pursue the project in the first place. And the same is true in ourselves – how often do we think: ‘that would be great in theory’, or: ‘it’s just not that easy’.


I have recently started relearning to drive after a break of over ten years (having started when I was in Sixth Form, but going off to university before taking the test). Learning to drive at thirty is not quite so exciting as it was at seventeen. Remembering pedals, gears, mirrors, indicators, lights, and wipers all at once, often feels like a superhuman demand – and I often reflect on the fact that I could be walking along the pavement a few metres to the left or right, without a care in the world.


My driving instructor, Paul, is very patient with me. He gently reminds me for the umpteenth time that I have stopped too close to the vehicle in front (‘can you see tyres and tarmac?’ he asks; ‘if I do this,’ I answer, pushing my head as far forward as the seatbelt will allow). ‘Why is it important to check your mirrors before stopping?’ he asks on another recurring theme of the last few weeks. There is at least one moment per lesson when I think ‘perhaps I don’t really need to be able to do this after all’. And maybe this thought is not factually wrong – I could, in fact very easily just give up – but the thing that stopped me this afternoon was the thought that learning to drive is very much like preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah – a process that I can speak of with at least some authority, though these days I am on the side of the teacher, gently correcting when twelve-year-olds confuse their resh with their dalet, or their nun with their gimel over and over again.


I do (begrudgingly) acknowledge that Paul’s corrections are a little bit more important in keeping the streets safe than are mine. Now that I have thoroughly terrified all those who are reading this and who drive on the same streets in North London, do let me reassure you that, like the students who prepare for their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, I hope soon to emerge as a safe and successful driver.


And at the same time, I acknowledge (much less begrudgingly) that the effort expended in preparing for the ceremony of Bar/Bat Mitzvah is in many ways far more significant. It is much higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, much less tangible, much less obvious in its usefulness. I wish luck, hard work, and skill to those (of whatever age) who are still neck-deep in preparations for that wonderful (and scary) day.


As we all contemplate changes and challenges of whatever kind that are happening or coming up, let’s never forget that we could always fail. But if there is a possibility of disaster, then there is, by definition, also a possibility of success. With the approach of both the new academic year, and the new Jewish year, in September, we have the chance to evaluate where are we, and where are we going. Are we worrying too much about the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, and neglecting the things at the tip? Or are we maybe too wrapped up in the tip, and not noticing the basic things that hold it up?


V’achalta, v’savata, uverachta – yes, let us eat, and let us be satisfied, but let us also bless – let us aim not only for the things that are practical, but for the things that are intangible, and yet without  which we absolutely could not survive.


Elliott Karstadt LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.