This week we read the famous 3 words: ואכלת, ושבעת וברכת – “and you shall eat, and be satisfied and bless’ (Deuteronomy 8:10), and one must wonder: how did this turn into four paragraphs and some blessings and closing singing verse after every – piece – of – bread?
Anyone who’s been to any Jewish event knows the power of food. We joke about the theme of the holidays: “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Indeed, almost every holiday has its unique flavors and foods.
I find our relationship with food intriguing on many levels. Most of us are so used to it, that we don’t often think about it; and while we think, we go over to the kitchen, open the fridge, and wonder, mmm… it often takes a negative occurrence to have us stop and think about the stuff we put into our body: what is it? Is it good for us and those around us?
Is eating a mitzvah? At first, you might shrug, but leafing back to Genesis, we notice the first time the root צ.ו.ה – letzavot –to command – appears in the Torah:
וַיְצַו֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים עַל־הָֽאָדָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִכֹּ֥ל עֵֽץ־הַגָּ֖ן אָכֹ֥ל תֹּאכֵֽל׃
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat (Genesis 2:16).
What is it about eating? Why would this be the first mitzvah (vayetzav) to eat from every tree in the Garden? What do we learn from the act of eating about our relationship with G-d?
Consider that this comes after the human’s creation. The human! The only one in all of creation of whom it is said that s/he made in G-d’s image! Wow! What a grand being! But just a split second before the human gets too haughty and get too many ideas about his loftiness, s/he is told about eating. If there is anything to remind us of our limitations, of how we can be just like animals, of how we are not immortal – it’s our need to eat (procreation and sexual desires are there too, and if you’d like to dig through a Hebrew dictionary you’d be amazed at the closeness of the words used for both). On any fast day my mind plays tricks on me: ‘hey, let’s get a little something’; ‘no, I’m fasting’, ‘oh, right, so how about fruit?’ ‘I told you, I’m fasting’. ‘right, right’ (two seconds quiet) ‘so… tea maybe’? This is the internal battle and it’s a constant reminder that we are made “in the image of”; a “spark of the divine” but not G-d. We are “created” —- and not “creator” — just in case something got into our head.
The midrash tells us about Abraham and Sarah who “made souls” (Genesis 12:5) and taught people about the One G-d. We “know” how they did it: they had people over for a meal and at the end of the meal, told them to thank whoever gave them that food, slowly realizing it’s Hashem.
In many cultures, fasting seems what’s more “godly”, more “angelic”, being able to manage without food, sort of like G-d! but our tradition tells us that it’s just as much a mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur as it is to fast on Yom Kippur itself! which in a sense means – to celebrate our being fully human is our duty and highest form of being. This is something we can’t do when we imitate G-d and angels, but when we “dig in” and while we aim to be “spiritual”, we also enjoy the very earthly gifts we got. From G-d.
Interestingly, we are not the only ones who eat, and I find this idea fascinating: When the sacrifices are accepted, it is described as the mizbe’ach (altar) who eats them (extensively in the current Masechet Zavachim); and the Land of Israel is described as “eating its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32). Though often viewed negatively, what this tells us is that the Land, which is an active, willing, living being (possibly any land but specifically here the Land of Israel) consumes and thereby changes those who live on it as they become an integral part of her! This metaphor leaves a lot to think about…
Eating also has dangers: two verses after our original one (Deuteronomy 8:11-18), the Torah says:
הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֨י שְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֺתָיו֙ וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֣יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today.
When you have eaten your fill….
וְרָ֖ם לְבָבֶ֑ךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים….
beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the LORD your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…
וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃
and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”
וְזָֽכַרְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י ה֗וּא הַנֹּתֵ֥ן לְךָ֛ כֹּ֖חַ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת חָ֑יִל לְמַ֨עַן הָקִ֧ים אֶת־בְּרִית֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ (פ)
Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.
Excessive eating can lead to forgetting the Source of it. That means that the Torah views eating as a tool, not an end! Our whole “mission statement” is folded in this one section: Eat to your heart’s content. Be satisfied and enjoy. Use all this to connect with Hashem via blessings and remembrance. For He gives you the strength to be. In order to maintain the covenant giving to your ancestors.
Now, let’s have a little something. All this writing, makes me hungry…