A number of years ago, Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As he fought bravely for his health in the months that followed, he also delivered a stirring talk known as “The Last Lecture.” Pausch reflected on overcoming obstacles, living fully in the moment, being aware of and passing on our most important values. It spread beyond the walls of the university with powerful reverberations across and beyond the country. “What would we say,” many wondered, “if we knew it might be our last chance?” People responded to his eloquence, his natural delivery and his ability to convey powerful life lessons even as he knew he was losing his own.
I’ve often thought of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, as Moses’ last lecture . The time has come for the Israelites to make their final crossing into the land of Canaan. But before that can happen, Moses shares his final words. He is painfully aware that he will not be entering the land with them, and so in these chapters, for their sake and for his, he retells the story of the journey they have been on together. Having their journey narrated for them connects them to the Israelites’ roots before they embark on the new chapter to come. For their teacher and leader Moses, Deuteronomy allows him to reflect on his own life — to take final measure of himself, to express his hurt at being left out of this crossing, and perhaps to gain some measure of peace.
Eikev, the portion we read this Shabbat, is like others in Deuteronomy: a combination of reminders of God’s commandments, values to keep faith in and the occasional bout of remembering episodes that were difficult to survive. One of the values the text brings them back to is a common proverb: “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Our contemporary understanding of this quote is that we need more than physical sustenance to flourish in this life. But the Torah’s understanding is a little different.
We are reminded that the Israelites were led the long way through the desert and were tested by hardships like hunger along the way — but thanks to the ample provision of manna, Moses reminds the people, they “can live on whatever God decrees” (ibid). It’s as though God is saying, “what you think you need to sustain you may not be what you actually need.”
This goes hand in hand with the verses that follow, warning the Israelites not to become complacent when they make the transition from being a nomadic people to a landed one. To paraphrase: “Don’t forget when you have more what it was like when you had less.”
There is great satisfaction in achieving milestones — in settling into a new place, a new stage of life, a new sense of self-acceptance. At the same time, Moses’ last words echo beyond their first audience: Let’s not become too settled. Let’s not forget what it was like to be the new kid, the person absorbing a loss or the person who needs the blessings of friendship and support that our communities can offer.
Let us ask ourselves what we really need to flourish, not just survive. Not what do we like, not what comforts are we used to, but what and who do we need? Because we don’t live by bread alone; we never have. We need people to encourage us to keep perspective, and to remind us of the heights we’re capable of. We need joy and nourishment for our spirits. We need reminders, even at times they may be the last thing we want, not to leave humility behind.
Part of what makes a last lecture, whether ancient or modern, so powerful is the ability of such words to convey what is of enduring value. One person’s voice, one person’s truth chiseled to its essence can be a great instrument of wisdom for many. On Shabbat Eikev, give some thought to what you live by, what you hold dearest, what your most important teachings would be in the end. We may never know who will benefit most.
Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.