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Feeding the Spirit

People often think that eating and the preparation of food are not religious acts. They are simply among the mundane activities we do, day in and day out, that sustain our bodies. Going out to a restaurant with friends, gathering around the dining room table with family, or even schmoozing with one another as dinner preparations are made, are secular affairs. This could not be further from the truth.

Religions in general, and Judaism in particular, add two key ingredients to every meal: gratitude and limits. Whether it is the Passover restrictions against the eating of bread or this week’s detailed list of prohibited animals, the preparation of meals is infused with the question of “Does my God permit me to eat this or not?”

For some this may appear like an inopportune, or even outrageous, question in the rush of preparing breakfast before heading out the door to work or school, but the asking makes us pause. It adds a sense of religious intentionality to something that our bodies require us to do. We can eat whatever we want, whenever we want, or we can eat with a sense of the holy. We pause and ask, “How does God want me to eat?”

I am not suggesting that the only way to bring a sense of Godliness to the breakfast table is by eliminating bacon. I am proposing, however, that asking the question is how one elevates what we tend to think is only about the body, and the secular, and not about the spirit, and the sacred. Every day I am forced to pause and ask, “Do I use the milk or meat utensils?” It’s not an earth-shattering question to be sure, and I am at times skeptical that the Torah’s prohibition about “Boiling a kid in its mother’s milk” meant I should have a second set of every dish, pot, and utensil, but the question, and sometimes the ensuing discussion, transforms the experience.

I pause. I look up.

I think if but for a brief moment, “What should I be doing?” And then, “Why I am doing this?” And finally, the soul responds, “Because I am Jewish.” Placing limits, or rules, help to introduce the sacred dimension to the everyday meal. The rules can be inherited as they are in my case, or they can be self-actualized as they are in the case of an increasing number of friends who are refraining from ultra-processed foods.

When we pause, we allow the spiritual to enter.

This is the essence of reciting a blessing, of offering gratitude. The greater the distance between what we eat and how it was grown, between how it was slaughtered and how it is arranged on the table, the more we lose touch with the essential religious nature of eating. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “[W]hen the food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don’t feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return—that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full.” (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants)

I am not advocating that everyone should take up hunting or that we should start raising our own chickens to restore this balance. Even though many are now gardening and growing their own vegetables, the distance between earth and plate, can only be traversed by the addition of a second ingredient: gratitude.

Robin Wall Kimmerer again:
Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; it is a theft. How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers—the living world could not bear our weight—but even in a market economy, can we behave “as if ” the living world were a gift?
Think about the words of the motzi, the prayer for bread and the blessing said at meals: “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” The rabbis who authored this prayer knew how bread was made. They did not imagine fields of braided hallah growing in the rich earth. Instead, the prayer is to remind us not about the baker but about the place where the food on our tables begins. Be grateful for the earth.

If every meal is taken for granted, or worse yet, treated as my God given right rather than a God given gift, then the food remains about consuming (empty) calories and not about feeding our souls.

Food is about bringing us closer to the earth that sustains us. Meals are about bringing us closer to others who nourish us.

People tend to think that food is so basic as to be outside the purview of religion. This week we are reminded this is false. Our spirits require us to say, “Thank You God for the rules with which I prepare tonight’s meal. Thank You God for the food I am about to eat.”

The preparation of meals and the eating of food are about bringing us closer to the God who animates our spirits.