Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim-Shekalim 5778

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The Spiritual Value of Eating!

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5775

Many of you are aware that I am somewhat of a carnivore. I have an appetite for meat and maybe a little bit of a yetzer hara for food in general. Maybe a lot.

Between that and the ongoing cholent contest I want to see if we can find some spiritual value in the act of eating. Can a gastronomical experience be a religious one as well?

Our parsha at face value seems to say – yes. At the end of the parsha we read of Moses descending from heaven, and recording Torah from God. They build an altar, offer sacrifices and then we read:

שמות פרק כד

י) וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר

יא) וְאֶל־אֲצִילֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֖ח יָד֑וֹ וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ: ס

10. And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.

11. And upon the nobles of the people of Israel he laid not his hand; also they saw God, and ate and drank.

The nobles of Israel see a vision of God…. And in the midst of that they ate and drank. Maybe there is a place for food in the religious realm!

Some of the commentators and Midrashim do not read it this way.

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah – (20/10) writes:

“And they beheld God.” As a man looks upon his neighbour while in the act of eating and drinking. R. Yochanan said: They derived actual nourishment; as is proved by the citation: “In the light of the king’s countenance is life” (Mishlei 16:15). R. Tanchuma said: The text teaches us that they uncovered their heads, became presumptuous and fed their eyes on the Shekhina.

The Midrash believes that the nobles acted incorrectly. There is no place for eating and drinking amidst revelation of the divine. It is presumptuous, a chutzpah, if you will to eat at a time like this!

The Eben Ezra, in his long commentary, writes that Torah records their eating to distinguish them from Moshe. Moshe did not need to eat or drink for 40 days when in the splendor of the divine presence. These nobles did. Although it is not a critique to not be at the level of Moses, it is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the spiritual value of eating.

Onkelos in his Aramaic translation appears to be so bothered by the possibility of eating at a time like this that he reads it out of the verse. He explains that כאלו אכלין ושתן – it is as if they ate and drank. They were so engrossed with the divine presence that it filled them!

According to Onkelos, it is so inappropriate to see eating as a religious ideal that it is better to adapt a non-literal read than to accept the text at face value.

I was starting to get depressed. Is there no religious value in the joy I get from eating??

No worries, I did find two approaches that will allow us to really enjoy our cholent today.

According to an opinion in the Eben Ezra and the Ramban – they did eat and drink and that should be viewed in a positive light.

The Eben Ezra compares it to the Kohen Gadol eating after the Yom Kippur service has concluded and the Ramban to eating at a siyyum or a wedding.

I think they mean that we are created as beings that need to eat and enjoy food. At times of great spiritual joy, post Yom Kippur , weddings etc we are meant to express that joy in all realms, spiritual and physical and thus we have festive meals at these occasions. The joy of eating not only reflects the spiritual joy but contributes to it as well at some level by making us happy.

Eating a good hot cholent or two on Shabbat brings us joy and allows us and helps us to spiritually enjoy the day as well.

Of course that only helps on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

That brings us to a second approach which attempts to spiritualize the act of everyday eating as well.

R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha writes:

In the name of our holy Rabbi, my father Rabbi Bunim of Przysucha, of blessed memory: The main purpose of eating is chewing well. This seems to mean that a person should grind [his food] well before swallowing, when he reaches the primary pleasure of eating, in order to clarify the root of the taste which issues forth from the mouth of God.

I am not exactly sure what he means as my knowledge of Chassidus is not spectacular but I think from here and other mystical writings that I have perused on our verse that it goes like this.

God created vegetation and animal life to sustain us and God ensured that it would be tasty. If while eating we recognize that, and use the taste to remember that God put this in our world, we can actually connect to God through food and taste. R. Simcha Bunim clearly writes that the value of food is not the nourishment perse, rather the taste which comes from God.

We then can read our verse as follows:

There are two ways to see the splendor of God. One is to actually feel it, and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.  Most of us will never achieve that. So the verse gives us a second way to sense God, also they saw God, and ate and drank.

I will admit that eating cholent to sense God seems like a tall order, but I for one am willing to give it a shot!