In the online publication series “Torah from Around the World”, this week’s drasha is by Rabbi Katalin Kelemen about Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25) under the title “A Jewish Ritual That Heals – ‘When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless…’”. Read the drasha below.
A Jewish Ritual That Heals – Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25)
by Rabbi Katalin Kelemen, Spiritual Leader of Sim Shalom Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless…” (Deuteronomy 8:10)
The sidra Ekev is named after its second word which means literally “on the heel of”, i.e. “in consequence of” your obedience. It starts with one of the prominent themes throughout all Deuteronomy: whether or not God carries out the covenantal terms depends on the people of Israel. If they fulfill their part, they will get the blessings of protection, fertility of body and soil, health and victory. God then draws His people’s attention to their past; the forty years spent in the desert were meant as an educational lesson for them to learn humility, to acknowledge their own relation toward the power of the Almighty and to save them from false pride. Moses reminds his people of their stiff-neckedness, bringing up the example of the Golden Calf episode and stressing his own role as intermediary between God and Israel. A geographic description of the exceptionally good Promised Land, much better than Canaan, follows. The sidra ends with the text in Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which later became the second paragraph of the Shema (“So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today…”).
From all the above I would like to focus now on one single verse: ”…Veachalta vesavata uverachta et Adonaj Elocheha… When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 8:10). Jews all around the world know these words by heart and sing them because this is the proof text for the Birkat ha-Mazon, the blessings spoken at the conclusion of a meal. The religious Jewish attitude to eating is beautifully expressed in these words: valuing and enjoying one’s food and being grateful to God for it, who, we believe, gives it to us. Nowadays, however, what we experience in our environment regarding our relationship to food is very different.
In contrast to the traditional gratitude for nourishment, seeing meals as a blessing from God, a large part of Western society has started taking food for granted. Fast food restaurants are increasingly packaging their products to resemble actual “junk” (i.e., rubbish); and by offering larger portions for the same money, all you can eat buffets, and suchlike, they are actively encouraging waste. If you can eat as much as you like, food loses all value and gets thrown away. It is cheaper to get a bigger portion, so why wouldn’t you? If you can’t eat it, just throw the rest in the bin. Seeing the amount of food being disposed of in a place like a cafe or restaurant is shocking. Having a meal has stopped being a time to sit down, maybe with family, or even alone: it does not deserve its own time in modern society; it is something that happens on the way to work, or sitting in the car. Everything in our world is take-away, portable, and disposable. Not only the packaging, but the content has lost value, too.
On the other hand, people have also developed a fear of food. Popular culture, which encourages us to look like the celebrities we see on TV and posters, has been advocating the cult of skinny bodies for some decades now. Hence, the pressure to lose weight is constantly increasing, as does the obsession with dieting. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia have sprouted from this phenomenon, claiming numerous victims each year – sadly, many of them from the younger, more easily influenced generation. Due to the idolatry of thin bodies and diets, food has been appointed as the primal enemy, an evil temptation to be avoided. It is so easy to forget the millions who starve and who would be infinitely grateful for the calories we are forcing ourselves to resist.
In our post-Holocaust world we’ve also been witnessing a third kind of neurotic relationship to food. First, second and sometimes even third generation Shoa survivors have developed a constant feeling of anxiety in themselves: consciously or unconsciously they apprehend a danger of starving to death based on their own, or their relatives’ experiences of extreme hunger in the camps. For them, in every new situation, it is a central issue to make sure that food is available whenever they want it. This is illustrated in the following story about an Auschwitz survivor, Tula Friedman:
“A waiter came to the table with a basket of assorted breads. Tula closed her eyes and inhaled the aroma of freshly baked bread as one inhales the sweet smells of a bouquet of freshly cut flowers. She passed the basket to me without taking any. ’Thank you’, she told the waiter, ’but I am on a diet.’ She then turned to me. ’You know, in camp I used to dream that one day I would marry a baker and in our house there would always be an abundance of bread.’
’For this basket of bread’, another woman across the table said, ’you could buy in camp all the jewelry you see at this Bar Mitzvah. Once in Bergen-Belsen I exchanged a diamond ring for a thin slice of white bread.’
The bread on the table was still untouched. The waiter came again to the table. ’Ladies, I see that you are not hungry today.’
’Not today’, replied Tula, ’and not ever again.’
The waiter was about to remove the bread. ’Leave it on the table’, said another woman. ’There is nothing more reassuring in this world than having a basket of freshly baked bread on the table in front of you.’” (The Five Books of Miriam, pp.192, by Ellen Frankel, PhD, a Grosset/Putnam Book, New York)
Thus, when we sit around the table “benching”, we learn to appreciate and evaluate the goods of the created world. We also learn to get rid of looking at food as the enemy of our body or the opposite: being compulsive about having it all the time. We eat, we are satisfied, and we bless God for it – and by doing so we heal ourselves and the world.
What a great wisdom of our tradition!
Rabbi Katalin Kelemen was a founding member of the first Hungarian Progressive Jewish Community after the Holocaust in 1992. She graduated in 1998 at the Leo Baeck College in London. Since then she has been serving the Sim Shalom Synagogue as its spiritual leader. She is the first and only woman rabbi in Hungary.