Chef Kwame Onwuachi shares that in rural Nigeria if you want a 10-piece chicken wing bucket, you have to raise five chickens. I read this tidbit in an Epicurious.com blog and it made me think of my younger son’s year in Uganda, working on behalf of American Jewish World Service for an AIDS education initiative for high school students. He lived in a small house with other volunteers and kept two chickens in the back yard for months. The memory stuck with me because he named one of the chickens ‘Nana” after my mother. It was what she was called by her 5 grandchildren. His stay in Uganda was cut short because of violence associated with national elections and on the day before he was to leave, his housekeeper made him a big pot of chicken soup, ostensibly to mark the occasion. Yikes – Ben ate Nana!
Eating and ethical behavior! And, thus, we connect to the Torah portion this week is, which is, in fact, all about Moses warning the Israelites to obey God’s commandments if they wish to glean the rewards of rain in its season and fertile earth in the Promised Land. This conditional theology might not kick in for us, but the real message behind all the warnings has more to do with what happens when we are rewarded, when we prosper, and when life is good – it’s exactly then that we need to avoid a sense of entitlement and haughtiness, and remember the have-nots of this world. To demonstrate this seemingly self-evident inner awareness, we focus on the three quintessential words of our Torah portion that relate to eating: v’achalta, v’savata, u’veirachta – you shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and then you shall bless. Let’s take each of these words on its own merit:
V’achalta. What goes into eating? In a rather dated grade 4 religious school text, Legends of Our Living Past, the response focuses on a PB & J sandwich on white bread and its origins. With prompts, the children eventually guess that the bread is purchased at the market; the market gets their bread from a bakery, which, in turn, procures the flour from a mill, who buys the wheat from a farmer, who harvests the crop because of ample sunshine and rain, that is the result of the conditions of earth, nature, and weather, all of whose origins remain a combo of science and mystery, the latter a nudge toward the Eternal, our Creator, who in this week’s Torah portion, is singularly responsible for all that grows upon the earth to nurture us.
However you understand the elements that come together to provide food for humanity, the imperative is to eat. We cannot function or move forward without eating. In the text, we are reminded of the importance of our physical selves and of the need to cultivate our bodies in order to develop a more fulfilled life, and in order to observe the mitzvot. Deuteronomy 8:3 states: A human being does not live on bread alone…” In the context of the Torah text and Moses’ third oration of guidance to the Israelites before he dies, the phrase is meant to convince the people that it is only God who decides to provide bread, or manna, or any food to the people, in the desert and when they arrive to the Promised Land. In our day, we often interpret this phrase as a caveat that physicality and material goals are not enough and need to be balanced with a spiritual life of study and prayer.
From another perspective, this adage tells us, without too much imagination, that bread, that food is quintessential to our existence and probably the number one focus of each of our days. Planning our menus, shopping for food, preparing and then eating consumes us, safe to say. I admit that during the most isolating days of the pandemic, I craved to go to the supermarket, so much so that we never used Instacart, grub hub, or any other second party shopper available in our area. We may have obsessed about staying 6 feet away from the next shopper, but how comforting and satisfying it was to be among others in a place where consumers shared a common need and activity. Eating directly connects to the way in which we reach out to others, as in breaking bread together. Eating together can often neutralize tensions between those at the table and offer fodder for mediation and negotiation.
And the converse, that is, the absence of eating, like our ritual fasts are meant to teach us to be more empathic, especially to those whose stomachs are always hungry. In the Talmud, tractate Bava Batra 12b we read, “Rabbi Avdimi from Haifa says: Before a person eats and drinks, he has two hearts, meaning his heart is unsettled because he is distracted by hunger. But after he eats and drinks, he has only one heart.” Rabbi Avdimi teaches us that we must pay attention to our hunger if we wish to focus on our own needs and those of others.
Regarding the second of our tri-fecta, v’savata – eat your fill, that is, until you are sated, I invite you to think about what is enough. How much do we have to eat to be satisfied and thus to say both The question is weighty enough that there is a Jewish halachic argument, that is, a legal argument about it. The rabbis earnestly argued about what quantity of food was large enough to warrant gratitude for a meal. The answer is k’zayit (as much as an olive). This constitutes the minimum of a meal. We give thanks in our daily practice because everything is a gift – nothing is guaranteed. Moreover, as we think of people for whom an olive’s worth of food is standard, we are motivated to address hunger and food scarcity wherever and among whomever it exists. Thus, eating emerges not only as a action for individual survival, but an issue of equity and human rights. The parsha is called Eikev. Eikev has multiple meanings but the one that comes to mind first is heel, after our ancestor Esau’s body part onto which his twin brother Jacob held during birth and Jacob’s given name of Yaakov from the same root. The parsha begins v’haya eikev tishm’un – “it will be that you will listen with your heel.” This is a call to action, a metaphor for Tikkun Olam – fixing the world. Tikkun Olam is reciprocal and holy, and specifically that which God demands of us – we need to reach out to others who may not be able to feed themselves, and the reward here is not conditional but assured – we will assuredly reap benefits from those we support and uplift. To illustrate, the following story is attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok and is the Jewish version, as the story exists in most cultures. In the Chinese tradition, the story is called the parable of the chopsticks and the Vikings call it the saga of the long spoons.
The Jewish version goes like this:
One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”
God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a long table on which lay bowls and bowls of food, a virtual feast. It looked and smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting on either side of the table the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the bowls of food and take a spoonful, but because the spoon handles were longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. And God said, “You have seen Hell.”
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large long table with bowls of delectable dishes that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The people in heaven were helping each other. They each used their long spoon to reach the food on the table and feed the person opposite them. In this way everyone in heaven was well fed and happy.
The man said, “I don’t understand.”
God smiled. It is simple, he said, Enough sustenance for all only requires one skill. The people who ended up in Heaven learned early on to share and feed one another. While those who thought only of themselves…well, you see what can happen.
This parable and its lesson lead us to u’veirachta – and you shall bless. It’s easy to offer a blessing before we eat when pangs of hunger draw us to our Divine provider to fill our bellies, but why do we have a very long after meal blessing – to keep us from taking life’s gifts for granted, from getting caught up in a sense of entitlement, from consigning ourselves to routine, and, as a positive, to cultivate gratitude, called hakarat hatov in Hebrew – recognition of the good that has been given to us.
Indeed, Jewish prayer is an ongoing seminar in gratitude. Birchot ha-Shachar, ‘the Morning Blessings,” form a litany of thanksgiving for life itself: for the human body, the physical world, for land to stand on and eyes to see with. The first words we say each morning, Modeh Ani, “I thank you” – mean that we begin each day by giving thanks.
Thanksgiving is as important to societies as it is to individuals. Nations sitting down at a table to heal their divides has the same positive potential as individuals breaking bread together.
Jewish tradition is worried about what happens when we have a lot, more than we need. I wonder if Nana and the other Ugandan chicken were shared with the housekeeper and her family. I should like to think so. This is the ultimate ethical message of v’achalta, v’savata, u’veirachta.