Torah Portion: Leviticus 16:1-18:30
Haftarah Portion: Ezekiel 22:1-19
Eating is something we do, three, four, five times each day. Some of us are aficionados of three square meals, the meat-and-potatoes crowd. There aren’t as many as there used to be, perhaps due to their cholesterol levels, but that staple crowd is still to be found. And then there are the grazers, munching all day on a variety of green things that resemble nothing quite so much as the weeds we try to keep out of our lawns. They may live a long time, but where’s the beef?
Eating isn’t just something we do with our mouths, it engages our deepest emotions and reminds us of family, of holidays, of places and people we have known and have visited. It isn’t just the Turkey, but Thanksgiving is a celebration of love that communicates its embrace with a good scoop of cranberry sauce. And Pesah wouldn’t be Pesah without the meal at the core of the Seder. Eating, more than just satisfying a biological need, builds community and enforces belonging.
Most of us would admit that broader aspect of food. While it might be theoretically possible to get our daily nutrients and calories through a pill taken on the run, such a sterile and lonely way of maintaining ourselves seems a poor substitute to sitting at a table together. The social component of food is still a value we cherish.
But we cherish it in the abstract, more as a fond memory than as a way of life. Family dinner is something we adults did with our parents and regret we cannot share with our kids. The symbol of our affliction is the fast food industry—we wolf down our food, rushing from one frenetic event to another. Since we barely have time to notice our food, it is tolerable that it has very little taste, almost no aroma, hardly any texture. If we focused on our food, we couldn’t enjoy it, so perhaps its best we don’t pay it any mind. Perhaps we compensate for the lack of satisfaction of our fast food by eating too much of it, hoping that quantity will compensate for quality. We grow fat, and still aren’t satisfied.
We’re not satisfied because food is, or should be, a sacrament: one of those prosaic, every day activities that bursts with the marvel of being alive, that pulsates with the bounty of God’s creation and the generosity of God’s love. Eating, done with focus and with attention, should root us in the planet, connect us with all of life, inspire gratitude toward God and a sense of belonging to a community that can celebrate that gift. In fact, eating should be a religious event.
Today’s Torah portion, Aharei Mot, reflects that orientation when it specifies that “A Jew who kills an ox, or lamb, or goat in the camp, or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting), to offer an offering to Adonai before the tabernacle of Adonai; blood shall be imputed to that person, that person has shed blood and shall be cut off from among the people.”
Anyone who butchered an animal without giving it a religious context, without bringing it before God and the Tent of Meeting, was a shedder of blood. Such a callous barbarism resulted in severing one’s ties with the Jewish people. Why?
Because killing an animal for food, while permitted, ought to be accompanied by a sense both of awe and of trespass. Taking a life is never to be done lightly. Only by recognizing the animal as one of God’s creatures, only by assuring that its death is as painless and swift as possible (in other words, kosher slaughter) can a Jew eat in a way that contributes to moral sensitivity rather than dulling our passion for the sanctity of all life.
Because eating alone literally does cut off ones ties with one’s people. Eating, in the fullest sense, is an opportunity to connect, to enjoy the earth’s bounty with people we love, with people we work with. Sharing food reminds us of who we are, and of how we are responsible. Eating together strengthens our love for each other and creates the precious memories the make life rich. Solitary eating is an impoverishment of soul, inducing a spiritual starvation.
Because eating with an awareness of the Creator of the Universe leads to an appreciation of the present, with all its joys, its sensations, and its gifts. A hurried meal is a squandered opportunity, a run on the bank of time. We live only in the present, and if we don’t enjoy every moment, then we don’t really live at all. Rushing toward an illusive future, we forget to stop and savor what we truly possess: this moment, now.
Judaism has always taught that eating is a celebration of life’s pleasures, a connection to our people, a link to our heritage and an openness to the marvel of being and the goodness of God. Teaching those precious lessons through kashrut, Judaism offers us the greatest gift of all: a life well lived.