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Friday, 11 August, 2017 - 12:00 pm

A tour bus with a load of seniors was driving down a highway. One little old lady tapped the driver and offered him a handful of peanuts, which he gratefully munched. After 15 minutes, she tapped him again and handed him another handful of peanuts. She repeated this several more times. When she was about to hand him more, he asked her, "Why don't you eat the peanuts yourselves?"

"We can't chew them because we've no teeth," she replied. The puzzled driver asked, "Then why buy them?"

The old lady said, "We love the chocolate on the outside."

Millions of people around the world are caught in a painful struggle with food, whether it’s chronic overeating, incessant cravings, food addiction, or simply a relentless preoccupation with food. Do you find yourself eating when you’re not hungry? 

In one line: Do you eat to live, or do you live to eat?

It seems like our religion puts an extraordinary emphasis on food. Every holy day is associated with food. On Pesach we eat Matzah; Shavuot—cheese cake and blintzes; Rosh Hashanah, we have honey; Chanukah is all about the Latkes and doughnuts; on Purim we eat Hamantashen; Sukkot focuses on eating outdoors. Even our holiest day, Yom Kippur, is all about food—it is the day we do NOT eat, and of course there is a Mitzvah to eat before and after the fast.

Food, food and more food. Why this obsession with food? Does G-d really want us to celebrate the Shabbat and holidays through eating so much?

There is, perhaps, a sociological reason for all of this. Our nation has been through a lot, and perhaps we are afraid that each meal might be the last. We take no chances.

But why does eating constitute so much of Torah and Jewish law?

An extraordinary verse in this week's Torah portion, Eikev, challenges us to revisit our relationship with food. Moses spoke to the Jewish people shortly before passing:

G-d... then fed you with manna... know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.

What does Moses mean by these words?

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, was the greatest mystic in Jewish history and the father of contemporary Kabbalah. He explained that at first glance, one may think the verse is saying that it is not the bread, but G-d that gives vitality to man. However, this would be strange. Man does live from the food he eats. What the verse means is this: “Bread alone cannot sustain human life. Rather, it is the Divine energy contained in the bread that sustains human life.” Moses was explaining how food achieves the miracle of nourishing us and granting life and vitality. 

Referring to energy in a more spiritual sense, Moses was asking his people to dissect not only the physical properties of the food they eat, its organic compounds, the glucose, proteins, fibers, fats, and more contained in the food, but to dissect also its spiritual properties, the spiritual energy each grain of food embodies.

“Man does not live by bread alone, but rather by whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.” We need food because the mass of the food contains Divine energy. Every grain of food has the Divine pulse vibrating through it. That is why food contains so much power and is so pivotal and essential to life. Eating, essentially, is a spiritual, Divine experience. It is not a materialistic, beastly, animalistic endeavor. We can make it such, but that is not its true meaning. Eating is a Divine experience—a way of connecting with the G-dly energy contained in food.

This means that eating can be a holy experience.

One day the neighborhood butcher came to the study of Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (1730–1805), the famed rabbi of Frankfurt, with a halachic (Torah law) query. A defect had been discovered in the lung of a slaughtered ox, raising the possibility that it might be forbidden by Torah law to be eaten. It was a complex borderline case, and the rabbi spent many hours studying the rulings of the great halachic authorities of previous generations, several of whom were inclined to forbid the meat under such circumstances. Finally, Rabbi Pinchas issued his ruling: The ox was Kosher.

Later, a disciple asked him, “Rabbi, why did you go to such lengths to render the ox Kosher? After all, the Shach (Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen, a great 17th-century halachist) deemed it not Kosher. Would it not have been more advisable to simply throw away the meat rather than risk transgressing such a serious prohibition?”

Rabbi Pinchas smiled and replied: “You know, for every man there comes the day when he must stand before the heavenly court and account for his life. I imagine that when that day comes for me, I shall have to defend the decision I arrived at today. The ‘prosecution’ will undoubtedly call a most prestigious witness to testify against me: The Shach himself will question how I permitted the eating of meat whose Kosher status is in serious doubt. I shall have to respond by citing the opinions of his lesser colleagues who ruled that the ox is indeed Kosher, and by explaining why I preferred their rulings over his. You can be sure that the prospect fills me with trepidation.

“But what if I had ruled that the meat is not Kosher? Then I would have to contend with another accuser—the ox. He would take the stand and bellow his rage: ‘How many hungry mouths might I have fed!’ he would cry. ‘How many hours of Torah study and prayer might I have sustained! How many good deeds might I have energized! This man consigned me to the garbage heap, while there were grounds for rendering me Kosher.’ To be sure, I could call on the great Shach to defend me. But, all things considered, I would rather take my chances against the Shach than confront an angry ox in court....”

This gives us some real perspective on the Torah’s approach to food, even if it has been changed over time.

Take an ordinary cucumber, or raisin, or tomato, or kale, or peach. Sit down, head high, shoulders back. Remove disturbances like computers, televisions, and phones. Hold the food in your hand; feel its texture and look closely at its surface, its colors, its shape and its texture. Think about its story—where it might have grown, the sunshine, earth and water that nourished it and that are contained in it. Think about the many people responsible for getting it from its inception to you now: The vineyard owners and workers; the picking, packaging and transporting crews. Think of all the miracles in its creation and growth. Consider its nutritional value. Now make your blessing: “Blessed are you G-d, energy of the universe, who created the fruits of the tree.”

Now, hopefully, you are mindful of what is contained in this little raisin or peach. Now you can eat.

Place it in your mouth and hold it there for a bit. Move it around in your mouth without biting it. Feel its texture with your tongue. Then, very slowly, chew it, try to experience each of its many wondrous flavors. Finally, swallow and then pause a moment and reflect on the taste of that food and the level of satisfaction it provided.

Eating that way ensures that you gain maximum nourishment and enjoyment from your food while needing minimal quantities.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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