Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Food glorious food!" / Parshat Re'eh

“Food glorious food!
“They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
“Eat to live; don’t live to eat.”

My daughter arrived home from Israel late last night, after a summer than included leading a Birthright trip (“it was awesome”), five weeks of study as a Tikva Israel Fellow (“it was beyond awesome”), and three weeks “couch cruising,” my husband’s term for traveling from friend to relative to friend all over the country and crashing on their couches (“it was phenomenally awesome”). We picked her up at BWI last night. So much to talk about. So much to catch up on. No sooner had she hugged and kissed us all and gotten in the car, than she said, “Ema, when are you going to make me pizza?” Her father and brother (for whom I had made pizza the previous night) echoed, “Yes, when?” I have not the slightest pretensions of being a talented cook, but I do make, well… awesome pizza from scratch. Food -- and eating together -- has a special place in our lives. This is true for everyone, isn’t it?

Parshat Re’eh begins with a reminder to the Israelites that the power of blessing and curse lie in their hands:
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandment of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn way from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow others gods whom you have not experienced. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
The Israelites have choice; they have control. They can choose lives of blessing.

And while there are many topics covered in the parashah, two themes predominate and are interwoven throughout Parshat Re’eh: idolatry and food. The concerns expressed about idolatry include tearing down idolatrous worship sites (Dt. 12:2-3), engaging in idolatrous worship (Dt. 12:4-7), being lured into idolatry by the Canaanites (Dt. 12:29-31), false prophets and soothsayers that encourage idolatrous worship (Dt. 13:2-6), neighbors who lure you into idolatry (13:7-12), and entire communities that give themselves over the idolatry (Dt. 13:13-19). The passages about food and eating discuss sacrificial offerings (Dt. 12:12-16 and 15:19-20), agricultural tithes (Dt. 12:17-18 and 14:23), permissible food (Dt. 12:20ff), and a reiteration of the standards of kashrut (chapter 14).

Why do these two themes -- food and idolatry -- predominate, and why are they interwoven throughout the parashah? Perhaps one message here is to beware the idolatry of food.

By now, we all know the sobering and alarming facts: the CDC reports that 34% of American adults are obese (not just overweight, but obese) and 17% of American children (ages 2-19) are obese as well. The increase in these numbers from 1985-2010 (just 15 years) is staggering -- around 25%. There is a corresponding increase in eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, binging. It is estimated that 8 million Americans have an eating disorder. (Those suffering from an eating disorder need quality medical care. If this is you, please seek help or allow someone who loves you to help you find it.)

We eat for nutrition. We eat for celebration. But not only nutrition and celebration.

Lucretius, the 1st century Roman poet and philosopher, said, “What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.” We overeat when we feel stress, upset, overwhelmed, depressed, sadness, bored, low on energy. We overeat due to a sense of deprivation, or self-hatred, or to please others, or addiction.

Our reasons for eating -- and overeating -- are many, varied, subtle, and sometimes unconscious. As Molly Wizenberg wisely observed, “When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring father and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.” (A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, emphasis mine.)

But how is overeating idolatry? Torah speaks of idolatry as the practice of worshiping sticks and statues. (That’s not what ancient peoples were doing, but that’s another topic altogether.) Idolatry takes many forms, but it boils down to regarding any object, activity, or pursuit with such adoration and devotion that it has power over us and surpasses our obligations to God. For some of us, food has become an idolatry.

I have known food-as-poison, and food-as-idolatry, especially processed sugar, and most especially chocolate. I admit to looking at a few slices of pizza remaining after dinner and saying to my family, “I don’t want any leftovers.” (What on earth was I thinking?)

Jewish tradition places a premium on health. Midrash tells us that Hillel would often take leave of his students, saying, “I’m going to perform a meritorious act.” It turns out Hillel was headed for the bathhouse. When his students expressed astonishment, he said, “If the statues erected to kings in theaters and circuses are washed and scrubbed, how more should we, who are created in the divine image and likeness, take care of our bodies, for as Torah says, For in the image of God He made man (Genesis 9:6). (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3) Our bodies are a gift from God: it is life itself.

The health problems associated with excess weight and obesity are legion and could even include a diminished lifespan. Yet we need to eat, and food is ubiquitous. There is no easy fix.

Experts tell us that the key is often a wholesale change in attitude and priorities. Isn’t that what a life of Torah is all about: retooling our attitudes and priorities. This takes time and effort. In my case, I had to rethink what food was going to be in my life, and reset my priorities. I don’t pretend it’s easy. It’s a struggle. But for many of us, it is a choice within our control. I was determined to choose blessing, and not curse, and to treat myself with the divine middot (attributes) of compassion and patience.

Our parashah ends with a holiday calendar of the three pilgrimage festivals, beginning presciently with Pesach, the festival of liberation and redemption. How do we re-enact the redemption? No surprise here: we eat. But it’s no sumptuous, calorie-laden buffet. We eat unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and the paschal sacrifice.
Observe the month of Aviv… You shall slaughter the Passover sacrifice… You shall not eat anything leavened with it… You shall cook and eat it at the place that the Lord your God will choose… After eating unleavened bread six days… (Deuteronomy 16:1-8)
And finally, the parashah ends on a note of blessing:
Three times a year -- on the Feast of unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths -- all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17)
It is a blessing to have good, nutritious, affordable, plentiful food. It is also a blessing to be able to say no to food in order to say yes to health and well-being.

Naomi got pizza tonight, to the delight of her father, brothers, and sister-in-law. There are leftovers in the refrigerator.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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