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Food - Path to Glory or Road to Perdition?

A significant portion of parshat Shemini is devoted to the laws of kashrut (i.e,. Jewish dietary laws). In considerable detail, the Torah elucidates how to identify what animals, birds and fish are kosher, and which are not.

Parshat Shemini concludes its identification of kosher species with the following verse: “Because I am Hashem who brought you out of Egypt to be your G-d. Therefore, since I am holy, you must also remain holy.” (Vayikra 11:45).

What is the practical connection between observing the laws of kashrut and holiness? Is it some mystical nexus that is beyond our comprehension? Perhaps, but if one equates holiness with striving for righteous behavior, I would submit there is also a very practical link between the Torah’s emphasis on watching what we eat and developing proper middot – i.e., good character traits.

Anyone familiar with Biblical narratives must agree that the Torah dwells extensively on eating and food. The very first commandment given to Adam Harishon, and his very first sin, involved eating. Of the ten “trials” in the desert through which Bnei Yisroel tested Hashem’s patience, six of the ten involved complaints or misconduct related to food or drink (Arachin 15a).

A significant number of “negative” commandments – lo ta’aseh – relate to food: kashrut, mixing meat and milk, fasting on Yom Kippur and other designated dates, not eating blood, yayin nesech, and others. As do a significant number of “positive” commandments: shalosh seudos, kiddush,celebrating the festivals by eating meat, and more.

Why does the Torah focus so much on eating and food? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is one of the most basic requirements for human survival.  In the Torah’s parlance, one might say that “eating” is our most fundamental “yetzer hara” insofar as a lack of food (whether just feeling hungry or truly suffering starvation) will cause most people to lower their moral standards (with the degree of lowering dependent on the extent of the hunger).

For example, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes how the lack of adequate nutrition quite understandably led many (albeit not all) inmates to lose their humanity and display animalistic behavior. Fortunately, food is plentiful nowadays, and the average person cannot relate to the phenomenon of starvation. Yet, we can still appreciate that when someone is hungry, they tend to act more irritably, and display less sensitivity, patience and tolerance (hence the advice of many therapists not to approach a spouse to discuss a thorny marital issue while he or she is hungry).

Thus, we might suggest that the Torah preoccupies itself with narratives and commandments relating to eating because how we approach eating shapes our attitudes towards other moral values and standards. By requiring that we exercise self-control and discipline in the area of eating, and thereby use eating as a stepping stone for spiritual growth rather than self-gratification, the Torah provides a model of conduct applicable to other temptations in life (e.g., material acquisitions, sexual relations).

Viewing eating as a tool for modeling self-control and discipline is inherent in the word for eating itself – achilah. The three-letter root of achilah is alef, chaf, lamed. The letter “aleph” represents Hashem. For example, “aleph” is “one” and Hashem is the One and only G-d (which is why the aseret hadibrot begins with the letter “aleph”). The construction of the letter “aleph” in a sefer Torah is essentially two “yudim” and a “vav.” The gematria of these letters is 26, which is the same gematria of the name of the shem Hashem – 26.

The two letters “chaf” and “lamed,” spell “kol,” which represents man’s achievement of perfection as per the line in birchat hamazon – “kemo shenitbarchu avotenu, Avraham, Yitzchak, v’Ya’akov, bakol, mikol, kol – just as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were blessed with “bakol,” “mikol” and “kol.” The gemara in Baba Batra (16b-17a) identifies the pesukim in which the word “kol” is associated with each of the avot (Bereshit 24:1, 27:33, and 33:11), and indicates that the word “kol” signifies various types of perfection (e.g., the yetzer hara had no control over the avot).

Accordingly, when we combine the letters “aleph,” “chaf,” and “lamed” to spell “achal,” the message is that Hashem and His Torah must come first – that is, each individual’s pursuit of his or her vision of perfection must be constrained and defined by the Torah’s guidelines. In all of our endeavors, if we put Hashem first, then they will be invested with a level of holiness that elevates them from mere physical acts to spiritual accomplishments.

Eating is the most basic example of a physical activity that the Torah deems a holy act if harnessed for spiritual purposes. For this reason the tables at which we eat are analogized by both halachic and hashkafic sources to a “mizbeach” – an altar on which sacrifices were offered to Hashem (see, e.g., Chagigah 27a (in the absence of korbanot, a person's table can bring atonement (by serving guests - Rashi); Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) 41:6 and 44:4 (“shulchan domeh l’mizbeach – the table is akin to an altar”); Pele Yoetz by Rav Eliezer Papo, “Achilah u’Shetiah” – “the intentions associated with eating are identical in their quality with the sacrifices.”)

However, what if put our pursuit of “kol” – perfection – first, and relegate the “aleph” – i.e., Hashem – to the backburner so that our actions are governed by our own biased views of right and wrong, rather than the guidelines of the Torah? If the aleph moves to the back, then “achal” becomes “keleh” – chaf, lamed, aleph, or prison. That is, if we our allow our desires (rather than the Torah) to govern us, then we become “imprisoned” – slaves to our desires. As Pirkei Avos (6:2) teaches – “Ein lekha ben chorin ela mi she-osek ba- Torah - only he that labors in Torah is truly liberated." But someone who follows his desires, becomes a prisoner to them.

The same concept can be seen in the word “haman.” When one hears “haman,” the initial reaction is to think of “Haman” -- the archetypal enemy of the Jewish people who tried to destroy us in the Book of Esther. But “haman” also refers to the special food from heaven by which Hashem sustained us in the midbar for forty years. The spelling is the same – but in one context signifies salvation, and in another context, signifies destruction.

This is the power of food – it is the most basic “yetzer hara” we are charged with controlling, harnessing and directing to spiritual purposes. Success in this area can lead to great spiritual accomplishment. But if we do not follow the Torah’s guidelines in the area of “food" - if we prioritize our own desires over Hashem's will - then our lack of self-control may lead us down a self-destructive path (note: there is no intent to pass judgment here on those for whom overeating is a challenge (myself included), and it is certainly recognized that conditions like food addiction can  be traced to biological causes that are completely unrelated to neglect of Hashem's will (see here); instead, the intent here is to uncover and understand messages behind the Torah's stress on self-control in the area of eating that readers can apply introspectively to achieve greater personal growth).

The view of food as carrying the potential for both salvation and destruction is reflected in the nature of character traits themselves. Rabbi Hirsch points out that no character trait – anger vs. composure, arrogance vs. humility, love vs. hatred -- is good or evil in and of itself. Rather, it's how those traits are applied in context. As Rabbi Hirsch explains in his essay “The First Years of a Child’s Life”:

“Woe to the man who allows himself to be agitated and carried away by any trifling matter that happens, but woe also to him who never loses his composure regardless of provocation, because nothing matters to him. Woe to the man who, bloated with arrogance, thinks only of himself, but woe also to him who will never learn how to stand his ground, if need be, in noble self-assertion . . . Woe to the man whose firmness freezes into rigidity, but woe also to him who can be swayed by any outside influence…”

In a nutshell, says Rabbi Hirsch, righteous behavior is an art that involves recognizing “the proper measure and the proper boundaries between good and evil in the most variegated situations of life . . .” Analogizing to music, Rabbi Hirsch continues, acting righteously means “master[ing] the whole range of the keyboard that is the potential of the soul with such virtuosity that every moment is met with the proper note, the one proper chord, so that the entire audience [falls] silent, spellbound by the master’s strength of will.”

Is this not also the challenge of food? To find the perfect balance between eating enough for proper nourishment without crossing the line into overeating? To exemplify “eating to live” rather than “living to eat?” It is thus easy to see how eating becomes a metaphor for refinement of character traits - the message, it appears, the Torah wishes to impart.

Indeed, returning to the observations of Viktor Frankl for a moment, we learn that there were some men who succeeded in rising above the horrible conditions of the camps to maintain their dignity and self-respect – their humanity. An example? “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” In short, it was those who controlled their most basic instinct (the desire for food) even under the most desperate circumstances who were remembered as the most righteous.

The notion of food as a tool for modeling discipline and self-control has important ramifications in the field of chinuch. Consider that the only real “yetzer hara”of a child is food. There is no yetzer hara for forbidden sexual relations since children who have not reached puberty don’t feel any sexual attraction. There is also no serious yetzer hara for amassing money or material goods. To be sure, while children want toys, these are (or at least should be) de minimus expenses in the big scheme of things. Parents take care of all of their children's major physical needs – food, clothing, shelter, etc., and thus there is no yetzer hara for a child to accumulate wealth through theft or other inappropriate means.

Thus, food is the sole and exclusive arena in which children can either be taught to exercise self-control for their betterment, or allowed to become habituated to a lack of discipline to their detriment.

I am not referring solely to observance of the laws of kashrut - it goes without saying that children must be taught to observe these laws. But as the Ramban famously explains, one can follow Jewish law meticulously, and still remain "a naval b'reshus ha'Torah."

Similarly, the Mesilat Yesharim explains in Chapter 13 - B'biur Midat HaPerishut (Understanding the Virtue of Abstinence) - that while, absent a prohibition, any food or drink is permissible, the individual who has accustomed himself to be satiated through eating and drinking faces moral risks.

Finally, commenting on the confession in the Yom Kippur vidui "al chet sh'chatanu le'fanecha b'ma'achal u'b'misteh - And for the sin against You with food and drink," Rabbi Dessler (in Michtav M'Eliyahu) explains that indulging too much in gastronomic pleasure incites the animal within us; it is human nature that lust overtakes us unless we hold it in check.

Thus, clearly, the value of teaching self-control in the area of eating extends far beyond the laws of kashrut, and may properly serve as a template for modeling self-control.

For example, many children will grab two portions of a favorite dish when they really only have an appetite for one (and end up wasting the excess). They are jealous when a sibling or friend appears to get a larger portion than them - or gets served before them. They will push and shove to be in the best position to collect the largest booty when candy bags are thrown in shul at a bar mitzvah or aufruf. They will stuff themselves with candy and other junk food, and then lose their appetite for a healthy meal.

The key point here is that if parents were to help their children learn to exercise self-control and discipline with respect to food, then they’d be setting their children on the path towards self-control and discipline in other areas that become temptations as children mature into adolescents and then adults (i.e., sexual relations and material acquisitions). Through teaching proper conduct in connection with eating and food, self-control and discipline can become engrained in a child's psyche as a source of strength from which to draw upon when he or she grows up and confronts more serious moral challenges.

For example, isn’t teaching a child to share a snack with a sibling when there isn't enough for both an exercise in putting the brakes on self-gratification and learning sensitivity to the needs of others?

Or teaching a child of appropriate age to clean up after they are done eating a method of promoting respect for property shared with others? (one might ask a child if they would tolerate spilled milk and crumbs on the floor of their bedroom? If the answer is no, then the child understands that they must treat other's property the same as they would want their own property to be treated).

Wouldn’t limiting the number of candy bags a child may take as bar mitzvah booty (or the number of slices of pizza ordered) represent a lesson in moderation?

Or teaching one’s child to allow an adult to serve themselves first at a kiddush, or to wait until other siblings are served first, an opportunity to teach patience when gratification is delayed?

Or controlling the urge to eat too much junk food an example of how we can't always indulge in what feels good at the moment because what feels pleasurable in the short term may not be what's best for us in the long run?

The list goes on and on. If we think about it, eating is one of the most prevalent activities in a child’s life, and thus there is no better context in which to repeatedly model self-control in age-appropriate ways. The constant repetition of appropriate conduct vs. inappropriate conduct in the sphere of eating over many years will certainly have an affect on a child’s character traits.

The concept of repeatedly using food as a tool to teach children self-discipline is reflected in Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s essay “The First Years of a Child’s Life” referenced above. There, Rabbi Hirsch describes teaching children appropriate behavior as learning the “art of being good.” He calls “being good” an art insofar as making correct moral choices is a “skill” that is not innate, but must be acquired through constant practice (which is why, as noted above, Rav Hirsch analogizes the "art of being good" to the art of acquiring virtuosity on a  musical instrument).

According to Rav Hirsch, the practice we are seeking for our children are opportunities to practice being good even when it is unpleasant, and to avoid evil even when it tempts our senses. What better context in which to teach this than in the area of food and eating where things that taste and feel so good are often quite the opposite?

Rabbi Hirsch refers to observant Jewish life as “a most powerful ally” that can be utilized by parents to model happy, free-willed obedience to a higher authority even when such obedience is unpleasant, difficult and contrary to our physical desires. Keeping kosher is a prime example, but as noted, it is equally important to model behaving like a mentsch in any context involving food.

In closing, then, let us return to the Torah’s admonishment in parshat Shemini after relating the laws of kashrut: “Because I am Hashem who brought you out of Egypt to be your G-d. Therefore, since I am holy, you must also remain holy.” We can now understand how developing self-control and discipline in the area of food represents the pathway to holiness.

P.S. - consistent with the thoughts expressed above, I feel this may be a good time to express my disagreement with the widespread practice of many schools to award “junk food” such as soda and sweets to students for Torah or other scholastic accomplishments. To be sure, most junk food is probably acceptable in moderation. But what schools fail to realize is that setting up junk food as a reward reinforces excess in this area - a lack of moderation. That is because when kids are taught to perceive junk food as a positive, they demand junk food at home as well, and every day of the week.

As such, I feel it would be better for schools to reinforce that junk food is bad for you even though it tastes good -- which is a good lesson for life itself, i.e., not everything that tastes good and feels good, is beneficial for you. And rather than offer junk food as a reward, find alternative rewards that have only positive qualities (e.g., gedolim cards for boys).

To this end, it appears that SWITCHH - a Torah-based educational program for Jewish Day schools, educating students, parents, and teachers about proper nutrition and the Torah imperative to take care of our bodies through healthy eating habits - is a wonderful initiative in the right direction.


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