As Jews, we love the fact that we love food. At each holiday we savor over its unique symbolic foods amidst an abundance of other delicacies. And someone somewhere inevitably makes that classic joke that all of Jewish history can be summed up in three short sentences, “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”
But let’s be honest, Jews are not the only people in the world who enjoy eating and take great pleasure in sharing food with others. Growing up I saw the same appreciation in the homes of my Italian and Irish friends. I witnessed it throughout my travels in West Africa after college as well. It is a universal human desire to congregate and to celebrate around food.
But what is special and powerful about Judaism is its wealth of teachings that encourage us to experience the food we eat past the level of our taste buds. Our tradition is replete with texts, both ancient and modern, that seek to open our eyes to the spiritual dimension of our daily act of eating, teaching us that eating is not only for our bodies, but also for our souls.
These teachings become more prominent at certain moments throughout the year when we focus extra attention to not only what we eat but also how we eat. Shabbat is one of those times. Tu B’Shvat another. And, of course, Pesach.
Pesach is the only time in our post-Temple-in-Jerusalem reality that we have an actual mitzva to eat. At the Seder, we don’t only say blessings over the matza and maror, as we would with other items of food; we say a blessing on the very act of eating them as well.
We know that the eating of the matza and maror are key components to the Pesach Seder. Alongside the actual telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, eating the matza and maror gives us an experiential and visceral opportunity to better understand and connect to what happened to our ancestors more than 3000 years ago. We ingest these foods not for nutritional reasons, but rather in order to reveal the historical psycho-spiritual reality contained within them. With each chew, bite and swallow we envision our people’s plight in Egypt. We remember the experience of being slaves, the suffering of our people and the unceasing yearning for salvation. Our eating of the matza and maror transports us far back into the past. It connects us to a story, our story, and demands that we know it, remember it, feel it and be personally affected by it.
For a few moments at the Seder, we eat deeply. Very deeply. We focus on the actual act of eating in ways most of us can’t even imagine doing other times of the year. For some this means eating the matza and the maror with their eyes closed, in complete silence and with intense concentration, trying to extract as much meaning and inspiration out of each bite as possible.
While there’s nothing like eating matza on Seder night, is this kind of “deep eating” meant only for those few moments? Are we not supposed to be “deep eaters” the rest of the year as well?
The mystical teachings of the Jewish tradition teach us that each Jewish holiday transmits to us different spiritual lessons that we are encouraged to integrate into our lives throughout the entire year, even long after the holiday is over. Pesach comes to show us, among other things, that, first of all, this idea of deep eating exists. That deep eating is something that is possible to bring into our lives. And, if we do, it could change our lives. It could even change the world.
Huh? What? How could how we eat food make any difference in the world?
Here’s one explanation:
When we eat, we ask ourselves: What exactly am I eating? What are the ingredients in the food I am eating? Are they healthy for me? How will they affect my mind as well as my body?
Where do these ingredients come from? If from a farm, where is that farm located? How far away is it? Who works there? How are these workers treated? How is the land treated? Is it treated sustainably or in a way that solely strives for short term profit?
How far did the food in my food travel to get to me? How much petroleum and other resources were used to grow, produce and transport my food?
If there are animal products in our food, how were the animals treated during their lives? What were their living conditions like? Were they killed with sensitivity or treated as automatons with no feelings?
And this is just the beginning. As we eat deeply and ask these kinds of questions, more questions arise, questions that inspire us to find answers and better understand the story behind the food we eat, because every piece of food we eat has a story behind it, just like the matza and the maror we eat on Pesach. The entire story of our world is contained and expressed through each piece of food we eat. The story of our modern-day human society; our values, our beliefs and our priorities. The story of human beings we’ve never met who, for better or for worse, are inherently linked to us through our food. The story of the Earth; the lakes, rivers, oceans, birds and animals whose lives are involuntarily affected by the food choices we make.
The greatest benefit of eating deeply is that it could lead us to becoming more aware of the impact our food choices have on other human and non-human lives all around the globe. Eating deeply can inspire us to make new choices regarding the food we eat, choices that take into consideration more than just our taste buds or culturally-acquired eating habits. And finally, eating deeply can force us to put our beliefs in tikkun olam (a repaired world) into action, and ask ourselves what we can do to increase morality, freedom and justice in our world.
And, after all, isn’t this what Pesach is all about?