Sermon: The Blessing of Food (B’ha’alotecha) (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

I have a problem.  It’s something that I’ve known about for a while, but it became even more apparent when I sat down to write this sermon just a few short days ago…and so I think it’s time to just admit it out loud…I am a social media procrastinator.  More specifically, I am very easily distracted by articles on Facebook.  Sure, I’ll check in with my friends or flip through some photos, but more often than not it is the articles that catch my attention.  I will click on so many articles and open them each in their own tab on my browser to the point that the number of unread articles is so overwhelming that it feels like they are, to quote today’s Torah portion, “coming out of my nostrils.”  There are always headlines that catch my eye – on everything from political affairs, to the latest news, to health and lifestyle tips… but most often  the articles that I find myself drawn to are either stories about food, or simply recipes.  I just can’t resist them.

Not only do I read all of the food articles and recipes, but many of them I bookmark, with the intention of someday attempting to recreate the delicious looking dish that I see on the website.  More often than not, I don’t ever even think about them again, but for those few minutes, I can’t imagine anything better than the newest “Innovative Method of Roasting a Chicken,” or the “#1 Way to Cook a Steak,” or “The Best Darn Roasted Broccoli You’ve Ever Tried.”  I simply can’t resist the lure of these gorgeous pictures, and fancy sounding recipes, and based on the number of times that these articles and recipes are posted, reposted, and passed around, I’m certain that I am not the only one who has this issue.

Food has become trendy – there are articles and books about food everywhere.  We are inundated with information about the newest diets, or all of the different ways to eat more healthfully, there are new restaurants popping up all over the place with unique and creative menus, there are new gastro pubs, and the emergence of a new classification of human being – the foodie.  Food is all over our media as well, with restaurant reviews and TV shows – such as “You Are What You Eat” and “Come Dine With Me,” and “Dinner Date,” taking over the airwaves.

Food has become trendy in the Jewish world as well.  There is a constant stream of new Jewish cookbooks, there is the ethical Kashrut movement, the environmental kashrut movement, Jewish farms, and Jewish community gardens.  A couple of years ago the Union for Reform Judaism in North America put out a large book called “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic,”  and I was lucky enough to study Food and Jewish Culture with one of the contributors to this book during my time in Cantorial school.

In our Torah portion today, food plays a crucial role.  As Angelica taught us, the Israelites complain about the food that they have to eat.  They whine: ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish, which we ate freely in Egypt; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;  but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nothing except this manna to look to.’

Why was it only the food that they complained about so bitterly?  They could have complained about their temporary shelters.  They could have complained about all of the walking they had to do.  They could have complained about their uncertainty about the future.  Yet in this portion, they complain about their food.  This begs the question; what is it that they were really craving?  Food is symbolic.  Food carries with it memory and emotion.  Sure, maybe they needed some protein, but the true craving was for comfort and security.  They wanted the food that they had grown accustomed to back in Egypt.  They wanted to feel safe.  Without the food that they knew, they felt as if nafshenu y’veisha – their souls were dried up.

Food has always been important in Jewish life.  I don’t mean just the old joke that sums up almost every Jewish holiday: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!  But we have traditions and customs that bind us over food.  Traditional Jewish food, whether it is Ashkenazi or Sephardi, reminds us of where we came from, conjures up feelings of warmth and recognition and comfort.  The smells and tastes bring us back to a time when we were with our families, enjoying a meal together.  When we cook or just eat a meal that is reminiscent of ones that we ate as a child, something happens in our bodies and souls.  We smile.  We reminisce.  We feel satisfied.  We feel the beauty of tradition deep within our bellies.  This is what the Israelites in the desert were missing; a connection.

Food does more than just connect us with each other.  It also connects us to ourselves and to God.  Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalistic Rabbi wrote an Iyyun that said “Do not imagine that God wants you to eat for mere pleasure or to fill your belly.  No, the purpose is mending… by saying a blessing before you enjoy something, your soul partakes spiritually.  This is food for your soul.”  The food that we eat feeds more than just our stomachs.  It can feed our minds and our hearts, and our spirits.  In our modern society though, we so often eat on-the-go, or at our office desks, or in front of the TV.  We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to connect with others over a meal, or to really even enjoy and appreciate the food that we are eating.  It has been said that when we wolf down our meals, and eat-and-run, not only do our spirits not get fed, but our bodies don’t absorb the nutrients from the food properly either.

Judaism has built in to it a way of avoiding this kind of mindless eating, and that is saying blessings.  Yes, we say blessing before and after we eat as a way of acknowledging the Source of all of our food, and showing our gratitude, but our blessings also serve a greater purpose.  Saying blessings forces us to slow down and take just a moment of calm before diving into our food.  It allows us to pause, and recognize the beauty and holiness of the activity in which we are about to partake.  As Rabbi Louis Rieser from New Hampshire wrote: Food is information.  Like a computer, the quality of the input determines the results.  If I eat junk food, I become someone different than if I were to eat wholesome food.  What is true physically is true spiritually.  When I am conscious that my food comes from God and that it is part of a holy cycle of life, it shapes me.  When I offer thanks for the gifts of food, it shapes me.  My personal food choices affect me in spiritual ways, as surely as they influence my health and my shape.

I don’t pray before and after every meal – most often I simply forget.  I am just as guilty as anyone else of racing through my meals, or worse, not really eating meals but just grabbing a quick snack to get me through a couple of hours.  This does not nourish my body nor does it nourish my soul.  Saying a blessing before and after each meal isn’t always practical, but I do know that on those rare occasions when I can pause before shoving that fork into my mouth, and then pause again to acknowledge and be grateful for what I have eaten, I feel satisfied in a way that I just don’t feel normally.  In the Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, one of the lines says “we have eaten and been satisfied…”  Taking a moment to breathe after we eat helps us to feel that deep physical and spiritual satisfaction that can come with sharing in a good meal.

I don’t know if this kind of mindfulness would have helped the Israelites in the desert.  I’m sure that part of the issue was that they were simply hungry for more than just manna, but I also believe that their desperate cries were for more than just food.  Had they been able to slow down, and really acknowledge the food that they did have, they might have recognized what it was that they were truly craving.  They may have been able to take the time to recognize how their food nourished them and connected them with everyone that was sharing that experience at that time.  That is my hope for all of us as well – that when we eat, we can take the time to recognize how our food nourishes us, how it connects us, and how blessed we truly are.