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Home » Ekev, Life Is Beautiful

Ekev: Why We Eat

Submitted by on August 18, 2019 – 2:16 pmNo Comment | 1,475 views

We eat because we must live, but according to the Torah, eating is even more important than life.

One of the most profound messages in the Torah is captured in this verse. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on the word of G-d.” There are many layers of meaning in this verse, and I will share one that has been passed down in the name of the saintly Baal Shem Tov. It is not enough for a person to live just for the sake of satiating the belly and pursuing material pleasures. One should set one’s goals higher and make one’s purpose in life to study and fulfill the word of G-d.[1]

In the Jewish vernacular, a Torah scholar is called a chacham and an ignoramus is called an am ha’arets. Chacham, which means wise, is an apt description of a Torah scholar, but what is the connection between the ignoramus and am ha’arets, which means nation of the earth?

Torah study is not about amassing knowledge, it is about amassing wisdom. The greatest wisdom one can amass is life wisdom. Namely, that life is not about material gain, but about serving G-d, the creator of life. The chacham is wise because he has discovered the wisdom of life. The ignoramus is one who is unwise in the ways of life. He believes that the purpose of life is earthly—the material bounty that we amass during our sojourn on earth. Thus, the correct description of the ignoramus is am ha’arets—a member of the people who live for earthly gain.[2]

The Chain
Philosophers have observed that the inanimate, vegetative, animal, and human, form a chain of life. The vegetable lives off the inanimate—the nutrients in the earth. The animal kingdom, which includes birds, worms, and insects, live off vegetation. And the human lives off the animal. This creates a chain of life, but what happens at the end of the chain?

If you observe the cycle of life, you will conclude that the human is interred in the ground after passing, where the body decomposes and becomes part of the soil. The cycle begins anew. The soil will give rise to vegetables, which will feed animals, which will feed humans, which will return to the earth. It is an efficient echo system that balances out. Yet, the Torah tells us that there is something deeper. Humans don’t live only so that they can fill their human needs, but so that they can achieve something that is higher and more important than life. That is, of course, the pursuit of a relationship with G-d.

When one reaches the pinnacle of this relationship, one can be freed from the shackles of earth. The paramount example of this, was Moses. When he ascended Mount Sinai, and spent forty days and nights alone with G-d, he neither ate nor drank.[3] How did he survive? During his stay on Sinai, when he reached the pinnacle of spiritual devotion, Moses was freed from the needs of the human body and lived off his spiritual vitality just as angels do.

The rest of us, are tethered to earth and have earthly needs. We fill those needs by feeding off the earth’s bounty, and we use the energy and strength derived thereby to perform Mitzvos and serve G-d.

The question is why. Why do we need these needs? If G-d could free Moses from his bodily needs, He can free the rest of us too. Imagine how much we could accomplish in our day if we were not burdened by the need for three square meals. There would be no need to shop, cook, set the table, eat, clean up, digest, and start all over again. We could also do away with all the problems surrounding garbage disposal, sewage, and health issues such as eating disorders, obesity and the like. Instead, we could devote all this time and energy to holy and noble pursuits. Why does G-d want us to waste time and energy on things that have nothing to do with our life’s purpose?

Even if you say that we must earn this privilege and can’t expect it unless we are worthy of it, we can ask why G-d reactivated Moses’ need for food once he returned from Mount Sinai. Moses demonstrated that he was worthy of being untethered from food, why then couldn’t G-d allow Moses to remain untethered?

The question becomes even more complex when we consider that we bless G-d every time we partake of the earth’s bounty. On the face of it, we are thanking G-d for filling our needs. But why do we thank G-d for filling these needs, when can we just as easily ask Him to remove these needs?

In fact, one of the blessings that we recite after we eat includes a thank you to G-d for giving us our needs.[4] This is the most surprising blessing of all. Why do we thank G-d for needs that drain our time and energy and distract us from our primary purpose in life?

The answer is that on Mount Sinai, when Moses was untethered, he studied with G-d, but he did not serve    G-d. He served G-d when he returned to earth.

Although the chacham understands that the purpose of life is to serve G-d and not to become engrossed in earthly pleasures, the chacham also knows that one can only serve G-d through the bounty that we collect on earth. Before we are born, and after we pass on, our souls are in heaven, where they cannot serve G-d. They can bask in G-d’s glory, they can study G-d’s Torah, but they cannot fulfill G-d’s will.

G-d wants us to live on the earthly plane, and be dependant on the earth’s bounty, but conduct ourselves according to the dictates of heaven. This is the marriage of heaven and earth— the word of G-d and the bread—that G-d desires. He created us, souls in bodies, amalgams of heaven and earth, and tasked us to live on earth, and be tethered to earth, but in accordance with the themes and rhythms of heaven.

Only in this way can some of heaven’s holiness rub off on earth. This, more than anything, is what G-d desires. G-d created a holy heaven and doesn’t need us to make it any holier. He created an unholy earth and doesn’t need us to make it less holy. But there is one thing that G-d chose not to do by Himself and appointed us to do it in His stead. That is to make the unholy earth, holy.

We accomplish this by eating the earth’s food but by preparing it in a manner that is consistent with the Torah’s dietary laws. By reciting our blessings before and after we eat. By eating with gentle restraint and with noble purpose. This way, the physical food becomes infused with holiness. Also, when its nutrients feed the energy that we use in the performance of a mitzvah, the food becomes part of the Mitzvah.

We would never eat if we didn’t need to eat; eating is just too messy an undertaking to engage in if we didn’t need to do it. But if we wouldn’t have this need, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our life’s mission. Thus, we thank G-d, not only for giving us the means to fill our needs, but also for the needs themselves.

[1] Deuteronomy, 8:3. See Sichos Kodesh, 5725:1, 19 Kislev.

[2] Sefer Hama’amarim 5687, p. 197, and elsewhere.

[3] Deuteronomy, 9:9. He did three times for a total of 120 days.

[4] Tosafot DH Borei, Brachot 37a.