Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Eqev 5769 - And you shall eat, be satisfied, and bless

(originally delivered on Aug. 8, 2009)

Almost two weeks ago I landed in Israel for a brief visit. As often as I go, it's always exciting for me to come back to Israel. I got off the plane smiling, ordered my first kafe hafukh with a smile, (upside-down coffee - latte with a whole lot of milk foam on top; it was the first of many during my trip). I rented my car with a smile and drove off in the direction of Tel Aviv beaming. A song by the late singer-songwriter Meir Ariel, Israel's Bob Dylan, came on Galgalatz, followed by Matisyahu, an American import:

I give myself to you now from the essence of my being
And I sing to my God, songs of love and healing

While I was groovin' to this, Hwy 1 began to fill up with the ever-present Israeli traffic, but I continued to smile, thinking, I'm so glad to be home, in the Promised Land, the land of the Seven Species denoted in today's parashah. Coffee is, perhaps surprisingly to many secular Israelis, not included in the Torah's list of the seven species, as it is exceedingly common throughout the Israeli landscape. Indeed, even the humblest of gas stations has a fine Italian coffee machine.

The night before I left, Judy and I took advantage of the fact that my mother was in town to go out for dinner and a movie; it had been quite some time since we had done that, and since Zev is at this point quite portable, we packed him into the car and off we went; big sister Hannah stayed with mom.

The film we saw was a documentary called Food, Inc. We love documentaries, and have seen a number of good ones in the last few years. A good documentary should challenge you to think differently about something, and this one succeeds in making one consider, and perhaps reconsider your food. I have been doing that for the last two weeks. And furthermore, reconsidering your food is a commandment found in the parashah that we read this morning, Parashat Eqev. So any movie that encourages you to perform mitzvot is, in my book, worth seeing.

But this film is more than that. Eric Schlosser, the producer, is perhaps the Upton Sinclair of today. Schlosser and Michael Pollan, the food writer whom I have mentioned in this space before (and wrote the article in last week's Times mag), put together a powerful analysis of the American food industry. Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, exposed the evils of the meat-packing industry of the time, and was partly responsible for the groundswell of public support for the Pure Food and Drug act of the same year.

Well, my friends, that was a century ago, and the time has come to look closely once again at what we eat. Now, I am not speaking specifically about the kosher food industry, which is not addressed in this film. But certain recent events in the kosher meat biz are symptoms of a couple of larger problems in American agriculture at large, and those are these:

1. Little oversight.
- FDA does not have the resources to check the safety of our food regularly and effectively
2. Maximized efficiency at the expense of the safety of the food
- the system moves so quickly and has been so highly refined that contamination spreads rapidly
- well-publicized cases in recent years, particularly E. coli infections, some resulting in death
3. Focus on commodity crops (corn and soybeans) rather than diversity
- not good for soil
- not like the traditional farm, in which nutrients pass from plants to animals and back again - symbiosis
4. Control by a handful of large corporations
- these guys own the markets - whatever they want, they get
- the government regulators overseeing them are generally former execs from the big agribusiness companies

I do not have enough time to explain all of these things right now, but I highly recommend this film. It concludes with a couple of recommendations, the last of which particularly caught my eye:

"If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us and the planet healthy; you can change the world with every bite." Hold that for a second.

Jewish life is inextricably linked to food; the patterns of our worship, our holiday observances, our lifecycle events all include meals, and the rituals that attend them. Mention virtually any holiday, and a particular food comes to mind. Even our fast days are bookended by meals. It is almost a joke, right? The Italian mother says to her children, if you don't eat your vegetables, I'll kill ya! The Jewish mother says, if you don't eat your vegetables, I'll die! Perhaps some of us had mothers like that.

So back to the aforementioned mitzvah: you can find it on p. 1041 of your humash (Etz Hayim), verse 10:

Ve-akhalta vesavata uverakhta et adonai elohekha al ha-aretz hatovah asher natan lakh

You shall eat, be satisfied, and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good earth that He gave you.

If you have recently recited Birkat Hamazon, you have chanted this line. The rabbis understood this to be the source of the commandment for Birkat Hamazon: Eat, be satisfied, and bless! Right there in black and white.

But it is not just about reciting a few lines. It's tefillah, prayer, and that requires kavvanah, intention.

So what should your kavvanah be, when you recite Birkat Hamazon? It is the following, and, like on Jeopardy, phrased in the form of questions:

1. Where did your food come from? Who planted it and fertilized it? Who harvested it? Who raised the animals? Who slaughtered them?

But all the moreso:

2. Who provided the sun, the rain, the temperate climate? Who gave us the seed, the land, the ability to sow and reap?

3. To whom does all of this belong?

Now, I would not go so far as to call myself a farmer, but I did grow up in a rural part of Massachusetts. We were not a suburb or even an exurb. We were just a small town, far from any city. My father and I spent many happy summer hours out in the garden, planting, weeding, composting, harvesting, and so forth. That contact with the land has never left me, and every time I visit Israel in particular, I remember that God's promise to us is as much about the soil itself as it is about the ancient ruins of Jerusalem or the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv.

Returning for a moment to the verse: The mitzvah is apparently to eat your fill and to bless. But note that the commandment to bless includes the following bit about land: uverakhta et adonai elohekha al ha-aretz hatovah asher natan lakh - and give thanks to the the Lord your God for the good land that He has given you. And so, when we saw that suggestion at the end of Food, Inc. to connect Grace and land, Judy's initial reaction was, "Well, Eric Schlosser (the producer) is Jewish." And that may in fact be true, and maybe he knows about birkat hamazon and this verse.

Or maybe he does not. But the interesting thing is that the Torah is quite progressive on this issue, in an ancient way. Our ancestors were in touch with the land; they lived on it and from it. They knew the condition of the soil year-round. When it did not rain, they keenly felt it (those of you that are in my Mishnah class, in which we are studying very old Jewish rituals for prompting rain in its time, know that our ancestors would fast if it did not rain). For the ancient Israelites, and for the rabbis as well, food and land were intimately connected.

For us today, that is no longer really true. In any grocery store, you can buy almost any produce item year-round. We are almost completely dissociated from the land, the climate, and virtually all of the elements that bring food to our table. Rain or no rain, you can always buy good strawberries. In some ways, that makes it even harder for us modern, non-agricultural people to understand Judaism, and especially when trying to relate to this middle section of Deuteronomy, where so many of the mitzvot have to do with the land.

While I was in Israel last week, I stayed mostly in the Tel Aviv area. One day I drove up north, and on the way passed many, many agricultural settlements. Urban Israelis have a lifestyle that echoes that of urban Americans in many ways; but they are also not too far removed from the food that they eat. Many of them have relatives who still live on kibbutzim and moshavim, the traditional agricultural settlements. They see the fruit orchards, the fish farms, the dairy cows grazing as they drive about the countryside, and only an hour away from Tel Aviv one can be in the middle of all of that. So even in the modern land of the ancient Seven Species, food and earth are not so disconnected.

But unless we here in the States grow our own food, or belong to a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program like Judy and I do, we eat food that comes from far away, and that was produced under conditions that are probably vastly different from the ones that you might witness in Israel today. And furthermore, as any Israeli who has spent time here will tell you, fruits and vegetables in America are inferior in taste to those available in Israel. (I can't speak for the meat.)

To fulfill this mitzvah properly, the mitzvah of eating, being, satisfied, and blessing for the land that God gave us, we must not only appreciate and acknowledge God's role in bringing it to the table, but we must further respect the land, and all the other elements of the process.

If you want more information about how to join a CSA, ask me at qiddush, or send me an email or call me during the week. If you want to be shocked, disappointed, and better aware of what you eat, see Food, Inc. And if you want to put the Divine back into your diet, start a garden and a compost pile, and don't forget to say birkat hamazon.

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