Pashat Pinchas – How Much Strawberry Shortcake Should I Eat?
This week's Torah portion, Pinchas, contains instructions about how the Israelites are to divide up of the land once they arrive: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Divide the land among the tribes, as an inheritance according to the number of the names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups decrease the share. Each is to receive its share according to its enrollment.'" (Num. 26:52-54). The land is to be divided up among the tribes, and it must be done fairly. It matters not only what is done, but how it is done.
The Chasidic Rabbi Zadok HaKohen Rabinowitz, known as Pri Tzadik, commented on a passage from the Talmud that was discussing that Jacob remained alone by the river without his family to remain with certain possessions, and he says, "That which is not created for this specific person is like stolen property when they are in possession of it, and thus [the righteous are careful] not to take possession of it." When we take that which is not due to us, we are stealing! But, that which is ours, which comes to us from G!d, the Pri Tzadik (quoting earlier rebbes), says that we have an obligation to appreciate it: "a righteous person is obligated to enjoy an object which is fitting for them even if it means risking their life."*
This passage makes me think about eating (though I could also think about how much gas or electricity I use or how many clothes I own, or…). Jewish tradition teaches us to recite a blessing before we eat and again after we eat, acknowledging the holiness of the food, acknowledging G!d's role in putting food onto our plates. We acknowledge that G!d brings forth bread from the Earth, that G!d is the creator of the fruit of the earth and of the tree and of all kinds of sustenance, or that all is according to G!d's word. But what if we eat too much, not just satisfying our appetite, but continuing to eat, filling our bellies to overflowing? What if we eat too fast and gobble it down, rather than savoring it and appreciating each bite? What if we enjoy our food so much that we eat more than our share?
First, we haven't divided – not the land, but the fruit of the land, fairly, larger groups having a larger share and smaller groups a smaller share. Instead, as a small group of the wealthiest on the planet, we have taken a large share. And, according to Pri Tzadik, we are stealing! I can think of many times when I have gotten up from a meal at a restaurant or a dinner of something I really like (strawberry shortcake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream being the most recent example) and have said to myself, I ate too much. I have eaten more than my share, and so, following the Pri Tzadit, I have stolen. I have stolen by taxing the Earth too much, using resources of water and soil and fossil fuels that were not my allotted portion. I have stolen by not properly appreciating the portion that is due to me, instead feeling that it is too little and that G!d should give me more. I have stolen by not leaving some of that food in the store or at the farm stand for someone else to have.
Culturally, we have a tendency to always have more food at a simcha (joyous event) than we need, perhaps carried over from a time when eating was one of the few enjoyments open to us. But Margaret Atwood, in her poem, "The Moment," reminds us that, as the Psalmist says, "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." (Ps. 24:1) "The moment when, after many years / of hard work and a long voyage / you stand in the centre of your room, / house, half-acre, square mile, island, country / knowing at last how you got there / and say, I own this, // is the same moment when the trees unloose / their soft arms from around you, / the birds take back their language, / the cliffs fissure and collapse, / the air moves back from you like a wave / and you can't breathe. / No, they whisper. You own nothing. / You were a visitor, time after time / climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming. / We never belonged to you. / You never found us. / It was always the other way round."
When I eat too much, I am in essence saying, "I own this," about something I do not really need. I am taking more than my share. I am stealing.
And so, I think of words I wrote at another time when eating too much was on my mind, and I try to remember as I eat that both how I eat and how much I eat are acts with the potential for greediness and distance from G!d, or for holiness and connection to the Divine:
יהי רצון ה' אלהינו, מלך העולם, שעם כל נגיסה מהאוכל שלפנינו נחשוב עליך ועל כל ברייותיך שאין להם די לאכול. תעזרנו בבקשה לאכול רק מה שאנחנו צריכים כדי להיות שבעים ולא יותר, לאכול לאט ולא למהר, ולהרגיש אותך בתוכנו ומסביבנו בכל עת ובכל שעה. ברוך אתה ה', מקור הכל
May it be your will Adonai our G!d, Sovereign of the Universe, that with every bite of the food before us we think of you and of all of your creatures that do not have enough to eat. Help us, please, to eat only what we need in order to be satisfied and not more, to eat slowly and not quickly, and to feel you within us and around us at every season and at every moment. Blessed are you Adonai, the Source of all.
*This material is posted as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment,” in partnership with Canfei Nesharim. Learn more at http://www.jewcology.org/content/view/Year-of-Jewish-Learning-on-the-Environment.