Don't Just Stand There ‑ Eat Something!
By Rabbi Basil Herring
I'm not sure about anyone else, but as far as I am concerned, by the time the second day of Pesach rolls around, I feel as round as the proverbial kneidel ball! Pesach is many things ‑ cleaning and shopping, new clothes, prayer and synagogue services ‑ but it is above all else, a gastronomic experience of the first order. There is hardly a mitzvah and a ritual involved in the Yom Tov that does not in one way or another involve food or drink ‑ and all of them in large quantities. It even occurs to me that it is the very act of eating in abundance that symbolizes the state of freedom that Pesach celebrates ‑ as if the slave and oppressed person takes his first and greatest vengeance by stuffing his stomach to the nth degree!
It starts even before Pesach begins ‑ with what used to be a fast day for the first born ‑ but which our Rabbis with great ingenuity turned into a feast, that which accompanies the siyyum, or conclusion, of a talmudic tractate, early in the morning of the 14th of Nissan. Then we go home and eat a hearty breakfast, knowing that it is the last conventional chometz food we will enjoy for eight whole days, and so we eat to our heart's content. Then we realize that we didn't finish all the chometz still lying around in the refrigerator, and rather than throw out all that good food, we are prevailed upon to put it to good use ‑ and add it to our waistline.
Light Meal Before the Seder
Once midday rolls around, the halakha teaches us that we are to take things easy and eat a light meal. You might think that this is for health reasons. But no, it is not. It is there for one reason: so that we should come to the Seder table famished, ready to consume the proverbial horse. Thus we sit down to the table, and tease our stomachs. First we make kiddush ‑ drinking just enough wine by way of an aperitif, to get the stomach juices flowing. Then we tantalize the taste buds with some carbohydrate intake, dipping a potato or some such vegetable in a little salt water to get us thirsty enough to want some more wine. We start to tell the story of Exodus, the mitzvah par excellence at the seder, but rather than merely recount the miracles and the wonders, we give them concrete expression using the most wonderful audio‑visual material ‑ all of them in the form of ‑ you guessed it ‑ food! Thus it is that we point to roast meat sitting succulently on the table's centerpiece, the seder plate. Then moments later we look longingly at the boiled egg, the three matzahs, the maror in the form of horseradish or bitter lettuce, and the assorted symbols of the struggle for freedom. Now we raise them, now we lower them, now we cover them and now we uncover them ‑ all ostensibly to pique the interest of the children at the table ‑ but in truth to insure that our minds are not for a moment free of the thought of food.
After about an hour or so, we finally give full reign to the palate, as we sit down to partake of ‑ what else ‑ the matzah. Not just a mouthful mind you, but properly speaking, enough to fill a Japanese wrestler's gut ‑ first the matzah by itself, then as a sandwich overlaid with maror and that incomparable, indescribable, delicacy known as charoset. You are expected to eat it all within a few short minutes, the equivalent of at least two full conventional matzahs; all the better if what you are eating are the heavy, hand‑made variety that settles into the stomach like so many leaden weights. And then comes the maror ‑ again in extended quantity, to be followed soon thereafter by the egg dipped in salt water. I can confide to you that inevitably by the time I have finished this point in the meal I am ready to call it quits for the night. Who could eat a thing after all that?
Enough, you say! But the meal has not even begun! They start to bring the chicken soup with its inevitable kneidlach (otherwise known affectionately as ?cannon‑balls.?) This is followed in quick order by a massive entree/main course, over which the baleboste has slaved for days, so that God help you if you do not finish the ?whole thing? down to the last morsel on the plate. Then the mandatory coffee, tea and dessert. But not the symbolic dessert that used to be all one could make on Pesach. Nowadays the dessert is a full blown Viennese table, enough to put the fabled Grossinger's to shame. By now you feel as if your stomach is on the floor ‑ but then with horror you realize that you have still got to consume the piece de resistance: the dreaded afikoman! And so, once more into the breach, dear friends, we go, and we proceed to ingest another entire entree of petrified dough and water. Finally, two more cups of wine are added to the mixture, as you roll your eyes in silent prayer heavenward.
With a touch of black humor, the Rabbis of the Talmud tell us that after the meal, one should not eat anything for the balance of the night, so that the taste of afikoman should remain with us. As if anyone in his right mind could even contemplate another solitary thing!
And so it goes, the same ordeal, repeated two nights in a row, the ritual punctuated by several meals in the interim, not to speak of the whole plethora of so‑called ?nosh food,? from macaroons to chocolate covered fruit, and from Slivovitz brandy to cake to nuts. I'm convinced that the typical Jewish family consumes more food during those eight days than it does in an average month, a hunch that is confirmed by the kind of frenzied food shopping that takes place during the three weeks preceding the orgy! Jackie Mason was right ‑ there is something mystical about the Jewish attraction to food and the eating experience. I believe it started the minute we left Egypt because our ancestors, contemplating that vast empty desert that lay before them, literally did not know where their next meal was coming from ‑ and so they came up with the first Seder ‑ and Jewish stomachs have suffered ever since!
Body and Soul in Jewish Life
But all kidding aside, there is something serious here, and it has to do with the relationship between body and soul, the physical and the spiritual, in Jewish life. It has to do with the miracles entailed in the mannah and quails in the wilderness of Sinai. When God informs the people shortly after the Exodus that he is going to provide them with all this miraculous food, He makes the following statement:
And God said to Moses: Behold I bring forth for you bread from the heavens, so that the people should go forth and collect it day after day, that I may test them whether they do follow my Torah or not.
What could possibly be the meaning of this verse? How does God test the people's faithfulness by providing them with food in abundance? Surely the opposite is the case, in that your faith is tested in adversity and in the absence of life's necessities?
There is a fine answer to this question,
found in Rabbi Ben Zion Firer's Hegyonah Shel Torah. He explains that the people had just come
to Moses with words of complaint and of longing, saying ?we would have been
better off dying in the
Overindulgence in Life?
The test that was then, remains the test that is now. Instead of mannah, we indulge ourselves in an orgy of food, food, and more food. Thank God we live in a society that is overflowing with gourmet delights in abundance. Few there are among us who go hungry ‑ certainly on Pesach. But therein lies the test. As we eat to our heart's fulfillment, do we turn our minds to life's spiritual dimension? Once food no longer is a ?problem,? and our tables groan with the weight of Waldbaum's best, do we free our creative energies to pursue the higher spiritual values and Torah dictates which wait for our attention? Or do we miss the cue, and take our blessings for granted, stuffing our faces like so many spoiled children, children of a God who provides it all, but waits to see how they will respond? How sad it would be, if we in our place and time, blessed so magnificently with the fruit of God's bounty and of our own labors, were to miss the point of this Passover plenty, and instead to want nothing more than to indulge our bodies again and again.
That, I believe, has got to be a fundamental lesson of the eating orgy that is Pesach and its Sedarim. Not just to do another Tom Jones, but rather to free our minds from bondage to our passions, to be able to look beyond material plenty, and to consider the purpose of our wealth and success. So that not having to worry about bread and butter, we can aspire to the achievement of spiritual sustenance, in a life of abiding fulfillment and religious responsibility.
Of course it is possible that we will go the other way. That sated as we are with the seductions of the senses, we will succumb to the urge of more and more. Indeed, in the Shema, it is precisely when we have reached the point of ve'akhalta ve'savata, of eating and being sated, that the Torah warns us hishamru lakhem pen yifteh levavekhem vesartem ve'avadtem elohim aherim, be especially careful not to turn after your hearts and turn to worship other gods! A full stomach can so easily make for an arrogant man. The true test, the Torah is teaching us, is to be able to enjoy and imbibe, and give reign to the palate ‑ but to go from there to higher things, rather than lower, to triumph over the flesh, and to live a life of abiding transcendence. Let us therefore, not forget the real significance of the gastronomic delight which is Pesach, and let us add not merely pounds and inches, but wisdom and faithfulness too.
Rabbi Basil Herring, Ph.D is the spiritual leader of the