In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes that he always had a difficult time with the rule of etiquette that doesn’t permit using a knife to shovel food onto the fork. He writes that after working without success to coax his food onto his fork, he simply waits for his companion to turn her head and quickly uses his knife to shovel his food onto his fork.
When researching the material for his book, Pinker discovered the reason for this rule. Medieval knights, who lived and breathed war, did everything, even eating, by their sword. Proper etiquette frowns upon this unruly way of life and thus deems eating with knives unacceptable.
There is a fascinating parallel custom in Jewish etiquette. Several great rabbis and pious men refused to use knives when they ate. But they refused for a different reason. Their point was to eat with a single hand and not use both hands to shovel food into the mouth. This was to demonstrate that eating is not the primary aim of their day. It is a necessary chore to be completed, not one to do with passion.
The Zohar, the seminal text of Jewish mysticism, states clearly that bread must be eaten by the tip of the sword. But the author of the Zohar was not lauding the comportment of medieval knights. These mystics had something entirely different in mind.
There are many endeavors in life that are pleasurable. They might not be the purpose of our day, but they are enjoyable parts of our day. Eating is the preeminent example of this. We don’t wake up because we want to eat. We eat to gain the energy that we require to do all the things that we need to get done. Yet, eating can be a very pleasurable part of our day. A culinary delight.
When we sit down to eat, a wrestling match ensues within. Our bodies are attracted to the food because it is delicious. The nobler part of our nature, our souls, view the food as a source of energy to power us through our day. In and of itself, this would not be a cause for war. It is just a different point of view. But our soul wants nothing to do with anything that is not G-d focused. If it is focused only on me, if I am the only purpose of something I do, then my soul wants nothing to do with it.
Why, is it sinful? No, it is not sinful. But it is G-dless. And the soul wants nothing to do with G-dlessness. If it’s only for me and not for G-d, then G-d isn’t welcome at my table. If G-d isn’t welcome, my soul doesn’t want to be there either. But what should my soul do, my body needs to eat?
So, my soul devises a neat solution. It looks to the food as a conduit for serving G-d. I am not eating for the sake of bodily pleasure, says the soul. I am attracted to this food for the nutrients from which I can extract the energy to help me do the things that serve G-d. In addition, says the soul, I can turn the meal into a holy experience. I can ensure that my food is kosher. I can recite the proper blessings before and after eating while contemplating my gratitude to G-d for providing this food for me. And I can think and share thoughts of Torah while I eat.
Thus, eating won’t be just for me. My body will enjoy it because it is delicious, but my soul will eat for G-dly reasons. G-d will be welcome at my table and my meal experience won’t be G-dless. In fact, it will be more precious to G-d than prayer. Because prayer is meant to be G-dly, what else are the prayer book and synagogue meant for if not for G-d? But food is usually meant for me. When I turn my meal into a G-dly experience, I give G-d something He would not ordinarily have. And that is precious.
Our bodies have no patience for these convoluted arguments that excite the soul. Our bodies just want to eat. Our souls keep nudging our bodies to slow down and think. Think, says the body? I am done with thinking. I am ready to eat. Nu, says the soul, why don’t you think while you eat? Oh really, says the body, why don’t I eat while you think? No, says the soul that defeats the whole purpose. My entire reason for being, is to help you become holy. For G-d’s sake, replies the body, just let me eat, can’t you see I’m starving? Ah, says the soul, if it’s for G-d’s sake, then eat all you like.
In case you haven’t noticed, this dialogue unfolds within every time we sit down to eat. The question is who wins? The answer is, whoever we decide. We have free choice, and it is up to us to decide whether our body wins, and we eat for self pleasure, or our soul wins and we eat for G-d’s sake. So, no. We can’t sit this one out. We have to wade into this war and wage it.
When the Zohar tells us to eat bread by the tip of our sword, it refers to this inner war. For this reason, when asked, the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged people to eat with a knife. It wasn’t just for etiquette. It was to remind us to fight and win the ‘eating war.’
The soul is like a muscle. If we exercise it, it grows strong. If we don’t, it atrophies. Each time we wage this battle, our souls grow stronger. Each time we engage in pleasure for its own sake, our souls atrophy. Turning each of life’s encounters into a platform for Divine worship that strengthens the soul, is the purpose of life. It thus follows that engaging in pleasure for its own sake, doesn’t serve our purpose.
This is true of all pleasures, but it is especially true of pleasures like marijuana which induce a relaxation that dulls the edge we need to wage this war. The very idea of marijuana is the polar opposite of the knife. If the purpose of life is to face our passions and weaknesses head on and sublimate them to G-d, then Marijuana is not the tool for us.
There are those who report a sharpening of their senses and creativity under the influence of marijuana. Under this influence, we might be more self-aware and alert than usual and might be better armed to wage this war. But this too is not the point of life. G-d wants us to win this battle. Not the cannabis plant that we absorb. If we can’t win this battle on our own, the victory is hollow.
This is not a conventional war in which the army with the best weapons wins. This war can’t be fought with weapons. It must be fought with raw will power and pure intellect. Artificial strength that is stimulated by external sources is useless for this war.