Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord, does man live. – Deuteronomy 8:3

The Hasidic Master, Yisrael of Kosnitz, teaches that there is a close correlation between the spiritual nature of an object and the degree to which it is accessible to us. He gives the following example to illustrate his point.

Food, which is the power of the earth, has to be sought after and is purchased with money. Drink, which is the power of water, and therefore more spiritual, is a lot more easily obtained with relatively little charge. And air, which is the power of spirit, is available virtually everywhere for free.

Rebbe Yisrael adds a second observation: there is also a direct relationship between how spiritual something is and how vital it is to our existence. We are able to survive more easily without food than without water, and we can live a great deal longer without either of these than we can live without air. [1]

The natural extension of this teaching of Rebbe Yisrael is that nourishment for the soul is even more crucial to human survival than food, drink and air. There are places and circumstances where there is no air, such as under water and in outer space, but the precious “commodity” of Divine livingness is everywhere, and it is freely accessible to everyone within their own self.

This teaching inverses the normal manner in which we look at life. Most people assume that the spiritual dimension is the least essential component in our life. It is a luxury that only individuals with lots of leisure time can pursue. Rebbe Yisrael is emphatically telling us that the reality is just the opposite. The spiritual life is critical to our wellbeing. It is more important than anything else. And God has made this truth plainly clear to us by the very manner in which He has set up His world.

We acknowledge that we could not exist for even a second without the Divine life that is inside each of us. We nod our heads in agreement when we hear rabbis declare that we are all sparks of God. Yet we seem unable to assimilate the truth of these words. We find it hard to believe that God is within us; that we are not separate from Him. We experience a deep chasm between the small, limited creatures that we are and the infinite power and glory that we ascribe to God.

Isaiah 6:3 proclaims, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory.” God is all around us and within each of us; everyone is filled with His Glory. Of all the creatures, only human beings have been given the ability to recognize this truth. We have been granted this unique capacity because it is our birthright to actualize our Divine potential. This is the reason that we have come into the world. This is what makes soul awareness the most precious of all commodities in the universe.

By contrast, the many material possessions that we accumulate are not part of our natural environment. We need to expend vast amounts of time and energy in order to purchase them. They are not crucial to our existence. They are only minimally relevant to our wellbeing and growth.

All the objects of this world are useless to us without inner nourishment. We may eat and drink but these are mere animal reflexes. A wandering ascetic that experiences the presence of God can be happier than a king with all of his wealth and power. Unless we are awake to our essential Divine nature, we are not fully conscious human beings. Inner wellbeing is the hallmark of human happiness.

We might be tempted to say that if God really wanted us to go toward the spiritual, He would have made the physical needs of life easier to obtain, so that we could focus all our energies on our inner work. But the fundamental needs of life are not that difficult for us to acquire. It is our mistaken perception of those needs which creates most of our problems.

The Buddhist teacher Dipa Ma would always tell her students, “Live simply. A simple life is good for everything. Too much luxury is a hindrance to practice.” [2] The more complex we make our lives; the more profound our problems become. As the Rabbis teach in the Ethics of the Fathers (2:7), “multiply your possessions, multiply your worries.” There is clarity and harmony in a life of simplicity.

We do not have to live like monks or beggars, but we do need to fight the urge to purchase and consume. We need to use whatever we have been given to the fullest. If we focus on that which is really necessary, then we will have little difficulty in living a God-centered life.

Sri Ramakrishna used to speak of nityasiddhas, ever-free or ever-perfect souls. These souls are born with the understanding that God knowledge is what is important in life. They are not drawn to material objects and sensual pleasures. They are not bound by the fetters of worldly life. These ever-free souls fix their minds on the goal at the very start and keep it in their sights thereafter. They let nothing get in the way of achieving their spiritual purpose. [3]

We are not nityasiddhas, but if we believe that God is important, then we too need to be ready to make sacrifices for our spiritual life. When we love somebody, we are willing to sacrifice a great many other interests in order to be with him or her. If we truly love God, we should do everything in our power to be in His or Her presence.

In this context, Sri Ramakrishna liked to recount to his devotees a parable about a guru and his disciple.

“A disciple asked his teacher, ‘Sir, please tell me how I can see God.’

‘Come with me’, said the guru, ‘and I shall show you.’

He took the disciple to a lake, and both of them got into the water. Suddenly the teacher pressed the disciple’s head under the water. After a few moments he released him and the disciple raised his head and stood up.

The guru asked him, ‘How do you feel?”

The disciple said, ‘Oh! I thought I should die; I was panting for breath.’

The teacher said, ‘When you feel like that for God, then you will know you haven’t long to wait for His vision.’” [4]

People sacrifice personal comfort for financial gain daily. They travel all over the world and invest countless hours of time and energy in order to become wealthy and famous. How much time are we willing to devote to our spiritual life? How many sacrifices are we willing to make for God? We need to decide in the depth of our being that it is as imperative for us to provide spiritual nourishment for our souls as it is to provide air for our bodies.

It is all a question of the priorities in our decision making process. Where does God figure into the picture? Is God first or last on our list of considerations when we make a decision in our life? Are we willing to choose one path over another because of its spiritual ramifications? Will we forgo, not the necessities of life, but the endless layers of luxuries and pleasures, for the sake of our inner wellbeing?

There is a Hasidic story about a man who goes hunting in distant places for a treasure that is buried all the while under the stove in his home. We spend our lives running around looking for happiness and fulfillment, trying to fulfill endless illusionary needs, when all along the treasure for which we are searching lies hidden within ourselves. All we need to do is stop searching outwardly and begin to seek inwardly, and we will secure the priceless spiritual wealth of the human soul.

Copyright © 2010, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yisrael of Kosnitz, Kitvei haKodesh, p. 23
  2. Amy Schmidt, Dipa Ma, The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master, p.135
  3. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 86-7
  4. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 674