“Have you ever felt that food is sacred? How does food connect you to others? To your family? To Judaism?”
At sunrise on Wednesday mornings in the summer, farmer Phil Stober and his crew pick fresh vegetables and fruit at their farm, Barefoot Organics near Lebanon, PA. and deliver it to Rodeph Shalom every Wednesday afternoon, as part of our Community Supported Agriculture. On Wednesday evenings, RS congregants come in to cook fresh meals, prepared with the produce just-picked that morning and then deliver them (we call them “Mitzvah Meals”) to other RS congregants who are ill, or homebound, or who have recently lost a loved one.
Last Wednesday evening, as I stood in the RS kitchen and watched our team of chefs preparing Mitzvah Meals I was overcome by the feeling that what I was witnessing was the very essence of Judaism.
Can food be sacred? What is the connection between food and Judaism? These are the questions we posed to our congregation this week in our first ever “Crowdsourcing” sermon, where we asked the members of our RS family to offer your thoughts on a different question each week – as our Summer Sermon Series. (As a way to tap into the collective wisdom of our congregation)
This week, we received a lot of very thoughtful responses. Quite a few of the comments focused on the Mitzvah meals, as this has helped provide deeper meaning to the connection between food and Judaism.
From the earliest times of our peoples’ history, we have recognized this connection. In ancient Israel, our ancestors were tied to the land – and there was a deep recognition that their physical sustenance, their very existence, came from the land. This is why our people felt a profound sense of thanksgiving to God for providing the bounty of their harvest. In the Torah, the people would bring the first growth of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God, before they were allowed to eat one bite for themselves.
The earliest Jewish festivals were all harvest holidays, to thank God for providing for the people.
But Judaism sees food as a metaphor for something deeper. The Festival Shavuot is a perfect example. Originally, Shavuot was a festival dedicated to thanking God for the harvest of the barley crop – which would come in late May, early June. The Israelites would take sheaves of barley offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem to thank God for their physical sustenance.
After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E, the rabbis changed the focus of Shavuot to a festival dedicated to thanking God for the gift of Torah. So the focus shifted from thanking God for food as physical sustenance to thanking God for Torah as spiritual sustenance.
Many of you gave examples:
Food is a metaphor for spiritual sustenance.
Passover Seder – we eat history (unleavened bread, bitter herbs, charoset, egg, shank bone, Elijah’s cup of wine)
Shabbat – challah reminds us of Creation – 7th Day of Rest. Manna in the wilderness.
YK Break –the-Fast – Motzi becomes most meaningful on a really empty stomach
After the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, the rabbis said that our home table has become our “altar” as they called it a “mikdash me-at”, “a small sanctuary.” Eating is a sacred act and our table becomes our altar. This can cause us to become more conscious of our eating practices – more mindful and more self- aware. (Henry Seigel)
The “mikdash” the sacred altar in the Temple of Jerusalem was the place where people offered sacrifice to God.
What are the sacrifices we make today at our tables?
Some ideas you offered:
The sacrifice of restricting food intake for health reasons, which can seem like an homage to our bodies and a contribution to our strength and vigor, creating a sacredness of self valuation and care. (Ilana Hessing)
The sacrifice of not wasting food. Even it you eat meat, to be concerned with how the animal was treated alive, and if it was killed humanely. (Stephanie Ben-Salem)
The sacrifice of caring if our food is “real, healthy, produced sustainably, fair and affordable.” (Mark Bittman)
At our congregational table, when we prepare and deliver “Mitzvah Meals” we experience the mitzvah of giving. It gives us a sense of spiritual wholeness to be able to help another person in need.
As people reflect on this, however, they realize they are not good recipients of help. Maybe they are too proud to admit they need a meal. They may reject being taken care of. Thinking about our relationships with food and people really forces us to reflect on how open and present we are.
One of you wrote a beautiful poem about this:
Put your hand on my shoulder
On the side of my face
Teach me to receive
With no argument
But with a smile and
Be the voice
Quiet but present in the day
Help me stand still
Marvel at my breath
My blood as it pulses
As I walk up subway steps
As I stir soup in the kitchen
As I meet strangers who are really friends
In this human experience
Be the little light that helps me
Bring in nutrition
– Danielle Cole
Last year, Mark Bittman, the food journalist, author and columnist for the New York Times spoke here, and virtually every seat in this huge room was filled.
Why would so many people come here to be with Mark Bittman? Because there is a profound connection between Judaism and the issues he talks about. The entire ethical food movement comes directly from Judaism. Concerns for personal health, the effect on the environment and all of God’s creation, issues of fair treatment and living wages for farm workers, supporting local and sustainable agriculture – all of these issues are part of our society’s focus on ethical eating. And they all come from Jewish sources from Torah and our ancient traditions and values.
At the heart of all Jewish values is the belief that all life is sacred, and Judaism seeks to find ways to bring sanctity into our everyday lives. These issues of food and ethics are a way for us to transform our table into a center of Jewish values, and a way to bind us together as a community – as one congregational family.