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Friday, 19 December, 2014 - 3:42 pm





Earlier this week, I awoke with my head feeling “heavy.” I could not seem to shake the cobwebs. It was cold outside, which I usually enjoy. I was, instead, on the brink of shivering, which I do not quite enjoy. It soon became obvious that something was amiss.


As soon as I arrived home, I put myself back into bed. That felt really good. In no time, I was fast asleep. The sleep, however, brought no relief. My head was still feeling heavy. It turns out that, after all, it was not my head. It was an issue with some food I had ingested the previous day.


The evening brought relief, but my head did not feel right until the next morning. Thank Heavens, all is back to normal.


This trouble is not exclusive to me, and it is also not the first time it has happened to me. It made me think: Why was my head so affected by a struggle down in my intestines? True, any disturbance in the body impacts other sections of the body, especially the head, the nerve center of all. Still, the functions of my head were essentially out of commission as a result of this saga. Should the head, the top of a person, become this impacted by food-related malaises?


A similar query is presented by this week’s Torah portion, “Mikeitz.” The opening story is about pharaoh’s dreams, in which seven emaciated cows swallow seven healthy ones, and seven beaten stalks of grain swallow seven healthy ones. Joseph interprets these dreams as seven years of abundance and then seven years of famine. Joseph recommends that the Egyptians store food during the coming years of plenty, and is immediately charged with implementing this idea. (B’reishis (Genesis) chapter 41 and on.)


As a result of the famine and the available food in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers, who had sold him into slavery some two decades prior, arrived in Egypt from Israel. Joseph, recalling what they did to him, put them through the grinder – as it were. They eventually returned to Egypt as their food supply dwindled, only to be challenged further by Joseph. The next Torah portion records how Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, and asked them to bring their father and that all should settle in Egypt to overcome the perils of the famine. After Jacob and Joseph pass, the Egyptian exile began, and the Jewish people were all enslaved – and eventually were freed at the Exodus.


All of this occurred over… food!


Food is life. No living organism of this world can survive without nourishment from food. Our lives depend on food, regardless of how spiritual a person may be. The main function of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was food. Its altar was a place upon which all food items, from animals, to grain, to wine, to oil, to water, were offered. Moreover, inside the actual Temple building stood a table laden with twelve loaves. These loaves simply sat on that table from Shabbos to Shabbos. They were later shared to be eaten among the priestly workers.


Food, therefore, is not merely a simple life necessity, but also possesses powerful spiritual components.


This concept was discussed in the Good Shabbos Email some four months ago (August 15, to be accurate). The point made there was the spiritual source of food, its “soul,” is more advanced than the spiritual source of the human. This is the reason food has the power to provide sustenance, energy and even life itself. Conversely, a human, not the food on its own, has the ability to elevate the food (and its lofty source). This is when humans utilize the energy of the food for positive purposes. For Jewish people, this would also include the observance of Kosher laws.


In continuation of this theme, another idea is present in the spirituality of food: At times, the consumption of food is a Mitzvah, a holy deed. By way of example, the eating of Matzah on the (first two) nights of Passover, or the many instances of consumption of offerings submitted upon the altar in the Temple of ancient Jerusalem. This also manifests itself in the context of the Shabbos meals, as well as on the Jewish festivals.


To regard food as nourishment which can be utilized for spiritual purposes is one thing. It is quite another thing when the simple and mundane consumption of food becomes holy.


The difference between a regular day and a holy one depends on the spiritual energies of the day or on the location. Days of spiritual significance – such as the Shabbos, festivals, and so forth – and spiritual locations – such as the Holy Temple – provide a spiritual enhancement to everything related to that day or site. Food on those days or in that spot now becomes elevated as well.


In other words, the consumption of food in the weekday is an exercise in elevating the food. The consumption of food on a special day or location is an exercise in elevating mankind.


The Talmudic Sages teach that every enjoyable food item consumed on the Shabbos is fulfilling another Mitzvah, another good deed.


Enjoyable food, though, can also possess pitfalls of its own. If food can elevate a person on special days or in special locations, one must be mindful not to allow it to dominate the person. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, was once at the Shabbos table surrounded by his students. The Rebbe was discussing the power of thought and how the mind can be manipulated by the thoughts occupying it. The Baal Shem Tov then mystically allowed his students to see a vision of a fellow who was enjoying his meat meal so intently that his face was imposed on the body of an ox wearing a festive fur hat called a “shtreimel”… Instead of the ox becoming part of the elevated man, the man assumed the identity of the ox.


Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, the previous Rebbe, noticed that a guest at his Shabbos table was not partaking of the typical Shabbos dish called “Cholent.” The guest explained that the doctors forbade him from such food. “It’s on my shoulders,” exclaimed the Rebbe,” as the guest dug in. Soon enough, the guest was scraping the bottom of the plate, cleaning it up, as it were. “My responsibility ends here,” said the Rebbe…


Even on holy days, when food can be a catalyst for human elevation, the ultimate focus must be on the spirituality of the food. One must be aware of not allowing the physical element of the food to consume oneself.


The festival of Chanukah, presently being celebrated, emphasizes this point as well. It is the only Jewish festival in which a prescribed meal is absent. The celebration is about the kindling flames of the Menorah. This is because the threat from the Hellenizing Greeks essentially involved glorifying the human experience and removing the sacredness of Judaism. The Hasmonian Maccabees fought to maintain the focus on spirituality and on the spirit of the Almighty.


It should come as no surprise that the Egyptian exile and its subsequent redemption came as a result of food, since the spirituality of food can be a formidable power and force. I also hope that anything any of us ever eats, especially the delicious foods of the holiday and Shabbos, will agree with us, and allow our heads to focus on the goodness of things… Happy Chanukah!



SUMMARY: While food is critical to the existence of every life in this world, how humans approach it makes all the difference.


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