Gratitude for Our Food
These weeks leading up to Thanksgiving seem an appropriate time to focus our attention on food and eating. We are grateful for the food we have and are mindful of those that lack this most basic necessity. Next Shabbat, November 5th we will join with other congregations to mark Global Hunger Shabbat. I will have more to say about that next week, but I thought as we begin again the reading of the book of Genesis, we should reflect on the beginning of the story of humans and food.
Before the age of agriculture commences, God plants an idyllic garden and places Adam and Eve in it. Everything is provided. There is only one catch—the creation of the first diet plan. God commanded: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it, for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen. 2:17). The rest, as we know, is history. Adam and Eve eat of the tree whose fruit (unspecified in the text, its identification as an apple is from the Middle Ages) was more likely to be chocolate crème pie or French fries than a fig or an apple. They then had the knowledge of good and evil and, despite that, wanted to eat more of what God had called evil.
Perhaps Adam and Even knew they were naked because they noticed they were gaining a little weight. Almost at once, they became concerned about whether they would still be attractive to each other. At first, God wanted to let nature take its promised course: “as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” But God had a second thought: if, whenever humans ate food that wasn’t good for them, their bodies would shut down and die, there would be no real choice, no free will, no struggle; no tree standing in the midst of the garden that contained both good and evil. So, God changed the rules. From now on, there would be good and bad things to eat. There would also be many good things of which it would be bad to eat too much. Choices would abound. Food, eating, and bodies would never be simple again.
“Cursed be the ground because of you;
By toil shall you eat of it
All the days of your life:
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.
But your food shall be the grasses of the field;
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground—
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return. [Gen. 3:17-19]
The obtaining of food would become a struggle. Mere survival could no longer be taken for granted. However, the dynamic of the tree continues writ large. We will desire that which we can not have or at least that which it is hard to obtain. We will want food not just to survive but because we lust for what we can not have and for what we imagine that food gives us. We will struggle to feed ourselves emotionally as well as nutritionally.
Food also raises the issues related to gratitude. When the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert, God provided them manna to eat. This mysterious food from heaven re-created the experience of the Garden of Eden because the Israelites did not have to struggle to grow or hunt food. Yet, instead of being grateful the people complained about manna and desired the leeks and cucumbers they remembered being fed in Egypt.
Gratitude is the practice of striving to remember what you do have. It is hard to do as we focus on what we don't have whether that lack is real or just imagined. For those of us who do not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, it is easy to take food for granted. The challenge then is to remember to be grateful and to think about what our responsibility is to those who lack this basic necessity. Next week I'll talk more about these challenges including what we can do for the hungry whether they live down the street or across the globe.
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld