Parsha Insights

Where Biblical law and Torah tale is brought vividly to life


The Jewish perspective on topical and controversial subjects

Life Cycle

Probing for meaning in our journey and its milestones.

Yearly Cycle

Discover depth and mystique in the annual Jewish festivals

Rabbi’s Desk

Seeking life’s lessons in news items and current events

Home » Food, Toldot

Toldot: On Being a Mentch

Submitted by on November 3, 2010 – 2:49 amNo Comment | 3,037 views

Fill Me Up – I’m Famished

Would you find it distasteful if I barged into your home while you were cooking stew,  peeked into your pot and demanded, as Esau did of Jacob, “Pour some of that red stuff down my throat; I’m exhausted!” (1)

Most people would call it un-menthclich. There is no perfect translation for the Yiddish word Mentch, it can be translated as refined, proper or well mannered. The reverse would be rude, brusque or crass. Not being a Mentch is degrading. To ourselves and to all of humanity.

The Human – By Definition

A human is by definition more exalted than an animal. The animal eats because it is hungry; it enjoys particular foods because they taste good and it engages in particular behaviors because it is instinctively driven to them. Humans are granted a higher tool – the ability to assert intellectual discipline; to discern proper from improper and choose noble from ignoble.

We are capable of living for reasons greater than ourselves. Though we are able to eat whatever we please we are expected to reign in our cravings and eat only what is healthy and nourishing.

All creatures can eat, but only the human can eat purposefully. Athletes, for example, strictly regiment their diet according to their athletic needs. Dietitians train them to eat only foods that grow the muscle sets they require. Athletes don’t eat to satisfy their palates or to quiet their grumbling stomachs – they eat for a purpose; to grow a particular set of muscles.

Only humans can sift through all available options and choose one that serves the greatest or most righteous cause. When we assert that discipline, we rise to the perch designated for us alone. When we eat out of sheer impulse we lower ourselves to the animal’s perch and are an affront to humanity. (2)

Have you ever seen a dog salivating in anticipation of lunch? Picture yourself, famished and exhausted, entering your home after a long day and your favorite dinner awaits you at the table. Does the mouth watering aroma drive all rational thought from your mind and send you salivating to the table? We are better than that. The human is not so fickle as to lose all rational thought at the mere mention of food, but sometimes we lower ourselves, surrender all self control, and behave like an animal.

You Are What You Think

It is true that we are nourished by what we eat, but we don’t have to become what we eat. When we are engrossed in the flavor and texture of a Triple Decker Burger Plus dripping with condiments and sizzling with heat, we, for the moment, become the meat. You are what you think. (3)

The Baal Shem Tov taught his students that in the cerebral realm we are what we think. To underscore his point the Besht asked his students to form a circle with their arms around each other. Joining their circle, the Besht lifted them to the cerebral plane through his powers of meditation. On Being A mentch - innerstreamOn this plane the students saw an ox sitting in a Sukkah, dressed in Chassidic garb of fur hat and long coat, eating meat.

When the students awoke from their trance the Besht explained that what they saw was an ordinary chassid, dressed in chassidic garb, eating meat in a sukkah. But because he was completely engrossed in the beef, he became that beef; in the realm of thought he was ox meat, for the duration of his meal.

For G-d

It is hoped that a husband, who takes his wife to dinner, is focused primarily on her; the particulars of his menu are secondary. A husband that is so enamored by the dish that he forgets about his wife across the table deserves to be slapped. When we sit down to dinner we are in the presence of G-d. If we think only of our stomachs and forget completely about G-d in our midst, we are as crass as that husband.

A human is capable of more. We can approach the eating experience in a purposeful manner. We eat because we require energy to fulfill a noble purpose. We don’t forget our life’s mission for a moment and we never break from our devotions. Even meal time is not our own; it is time to reenergize in order to move forward.

Sadly, too many are inclined to approach their meal time with the Esau attitude of fill me up because I am famished.

 According to Stats Canada, 51.6 percent of Canadian Adults are overweight. This number is steadily rising. Five years ago we were below fifty percent; today we have far surpassed the break even point. This means that most Canadians eat too much of the wrong foods largely because they are self absorbed when it comes to food. They don’t think of their health or their future; when they see food all they can think of is satisfying the little urge called a palate.

As humans, we are capable of leading with our brains rather than our stomachs. When we sit down to eat we must recall that we are bigger than the food we eat. We live with values and ideals, we function with nobility of purpose and interact with dignity and poise. We are more than sophisticated animals. We are human beings; created in G-d’s image.

We serve a higher purpose every day and every moment; even during meal time. When we eat in this manner we are less inclined to overeat or to indulge in unhealthy foods. Our purpose if not self centered and we are not seeking personal satisfaction; we are on duty – in service to our core humanness and, of course, to G-d. (4)


  1. Genesis 25:30.
  2. In fact we are lower than the animal – the animal does what comes natural to it and is incapable of more. We are capable of higher living and choose freely to descend to the animal.
  3. Our sages have long told us that we are to be found where our thoughts are. The story is told of a student who was caught day dreaming in class. When he awoke the teacher welcomed him back to the century, decade, year, date and time, then to the country, city, street, school building and class. When the class snickered the teacher explained that the young man’s day dream transposed him to the location of his thoughts and when he awoke he needed to be welcomed back. We are where and what we think.
  4. This essay is based on Kuntres Umayan ch.1.
Tags: , ,