Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Evolution of Food - Reflections on Parashat Shemini 5776

(Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47)

I cook for a living, and perhaps because of that, I think a lot about food. I suppose that makes me a "foodie." 

So, as this week's Torah portion deals with many of the rules of keeping kosher, that is, of eating in a kosher way, it could be that I've given the subject more than a passing thought.

Down through the ages, the Sages of Israel have used different approaches for understanding the significance of keeping kosher, but the broad consensus of rabbinic opinion is that keeping kosher confers spiritual benefits only, and does not contribute to our physical well-being.

In other words, kosher eating is not necessarily synonymous with healthy eating. 

I would like to challenge that assertion. But before I do, we need to discuss one or two salient details of Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection.

OK, I know you're thinking: aside from possibly eating a Galapagos finch (and fuggedabowdit they're not kosher) what could Natural Selection possibly have to do with keeping kosher?

Let's first make sure we're clear on Natural Selection. Here's a brief mythical example: imagine an idyllic South Pacific island, with a native tribe whom we'll call the Cute Residents of the Idyllic South Pacific Island, or CRISPIs for short. 

In the beginning of our story, all the members of the CRISPI tribe share similar genetics, and are of comparable height, skin color, eye color, etc. However, over the span of many generations, hundreds or even thousands of years, certain genetic variations begin to creep in. Maybe outsiders from far-flung atolls have paddled over, taken up residence, and started families with CRISPI maidens. Maybe the genetic variations are due to naturally occurring genetic mutations (CRISPIs spend a lot of time idylling in the sun).

Whatever the reason, over time, the CRISPI tribe starts looking more diverse than it used to. Some CRISPIs are now significantly taller and leaner than others, some have different color hair or eyes. (How that changing genetic information is physically expressed is called phenotype.)

And so everything plods along idyllically - until disaster strikes. A cargo container drifts ashore, and when opened, turns out to contain a den of (by now) very hungry zoo lions. 

In the face of this sudden environmental stress, different phenotypes now confer distinct survival advantages or disadvantages over others. For example, maybe faster, leaner CRISPIs have a higher likelihood of outrunning the lions and shimmying up a tree to safety than the slower, fatter CRISPIs. They're also more likely to be able to safely scoot down, grab some food and shimmy back up to safety. Since more of them are likely to survive in this difficult new environment, they are more likely to have more offspring, who in turn are fast and lean, and better suited to making it in the new reality. And before too many generations have elapsed, the slower, fatter CRISPIs will likely die out for the converse reason.

To summarize: before the cargo container opened, the genetic diversity among the population didn't mean very much; lean or chunky, tall or short, everyone strummed ukeleles and danced on the beach all day. But when the circumstances suddenly changed, that phenotypic diversity became the difference between life and death. Nature essentially selected out the fast, skinny CRISPIs to survive, and condemned slow, fat CRISPIs to extinction.

That is the concept of Natural Selection in a nutshell (did you notice how I snuck in another food reference right there?)

Now we can get back to the business of food and kosher.

America has become a nation of fat CRISPIs. A century ago, tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery were the leading killers in America. Today, the top killers are diseases of affluence: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer.

According to the National Institutes of Health:
  • More than two-thirds (68.8%) of adults are considered to be overweight or obese.
  • More than one-third (35.7%) of adults are considered to be obese.
  • More than 1 in 20 (6.3%) have extreme obesity.
  • Almost 3 in 4 men (74%) are considered to be overweight or obese.
  • The overall prevalence of obesity is similar for both men and women (about 36%).
  • About 8% of women are considered to have extreme obesity.
  • About one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese.
  • More than 1 in 6 children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be obese.  
Being fat is the new normal; there is no longer any shame in it.

I am also told by medical professionals that the overall cancer rate 75 years ago was about 1 in 15; today it is approaching 1 in 2.

What has changed in that time?

It's the food. THE FOOD. Our food has changed.

In the past, people sat down to meals prepared from raw ingredients; fresh meats from the butcher, fresh produce from the green grocer, fresh bread from the neighborhood bakery. Milk was delivered fresh every day from the local dairy. Another mythical person, the stay-at-home-mom, cooked these meals from scratch.

Somewhere along the line, that changed. Mommies went to work, and no one had time to cook. Supermarkets gradually drove the butchers and bakers out of business. Fast food franchises proliferated. Food ceased being food, and became a 'product,' and food production became an industry.

Once food becomes a product, like an iPhone or a Chevrolet, product consistency becomes a core business value. Food preservation and color retention and spoilage reduction factors become paramount. Today, supermarket shelves are chock full of 'product': preserved, pasteurized, homogenized, hydrolyzed, stabilized, texturized, re-formed, artificially colored and flavored, all designed to protect and service the food supply chain, which takes weeks to get the food "product" from factory floor to supermarket floor. And the FDA smiles benevolently on this cacophony of plastic food because studies (paid for by the food manufacturers) prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the preservatives don't kill laboratory mice (at least not right away, anyway).

And let's not even discuss the billions of advertising dollars spent to convince consumers that buying all this product is normal and cool and desirable, and oh! how you're missing out if you don't have Crunchberries for breakfast or a Coke with lunch.

Today, America is a country of soda guzzling, Big Mac chomping, Hot Pocketing, bacon loving, Hamburger Helpin', perambulatory heart attacks on a stick. The days of eating a home cooked meal that didn't derive from a box are in the rear view mirror.

Is it any wonder that we're obese, that we're cancer-ridden, that we have artificial knees and hips? That one in seven Americans are gluten sensitive, who can no longer tolerate the adulteration of wheat, which benefits the mega-bread factories? That food allergies that we never knew in our childhoods are exploding in frequency? 

We are committing suicide by plastic spork.

So it may well be that, up until recent times, keeping kosher only offered spiritual benefits. Maybe in the past, before this sea change in food, it was true that people who kept kosher were no more or less physically healthy than non-Jews who did not keep kosher. 

But the food environment has suddenly changed, and the difference between keeping kosher and not, differences that once didn't mean much in terms of physical health, may now mean the difference between life and death.

What does the Hebrew word "kosher" mean, anyway? It means 'fit', as in fit to eat. The food we eat should be fit for human consumption. And at its core, keeping kosher is all about paying attention, and being sensitive to, what we consume as food.

Kashrut itself has evolved. Veal and foie gras, once technically kosher, are now considered by many poskim (decisors of Jewish Law) to be not kosher, because we have become sensitized to the pain inflicted on the animal prior to slaughter.

And the mean time from factory to store is significantly shorter with kosher meat.

And because we Jews are careful to scrub our fresh produce for any evidence of bugs, we are also doing a pretty bang-up job of washing pesticides off our produce.

And of course, eating at McDonald's and Burger King and Taco Bell is (thank Gcd!) out of the question.

In the same way that our particular rules about frequent hand washing saved the Jews from the Black Death (so much so, that our non-Jewish neighbors accused us of causing it) our higher standard of what is fit to eat may well be inadvertently saving us from supermarket poison.

To be sure, it is possible, as the Ramban will remind us in a few weeks, to be a menuval b'reshut HaTorah, to fulfill the technical requirements of keeping kosher and still be a glutton, overweight and sickly. But I contend that the kiyyum, the fulfillment of the higher intent and spirit of kashrut, goes way beyond the slavish search for the kosher symbol on a package.

To really keep kosher is to think hard about the food we eat. As we approach the Passover season, I am amazed at how people lose their minds - and drain their wallets - buying exorbitantly priced Kosher for Passover cake and doughnut mixes and exotic candies and potato chips and ketchup and sodas and cookies and tortes - as if they won't survive for a week without them.

Here's a clever idea: this Passover, go native. Stick to lean kosher meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a little matzah. Cook from scratch. Make a soup. Use fresh herbs. For that one week, avoid factory food and see how you do. 

We are the Or LaGoyim, A Light Unto the Nations; walking, talking examples of the myriad blessings of a Torah-centric life. That living example extends to every aspect of our lives, including the food on our tables and our physical health that derives from it.

Reflect on and really examine the food you eat. Really think about kosher. And you will find that keeping kosher confers both spiritual and physical benefits that only the Author of Life Himself could have foreseen when He gave us the great gift of Torah some 3,328 years ago.

Shabbat Shalom.

(To read an earlier blog post on this Torah Portion, click HERE.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Confronting Evil - Reflections on Parashat Zachor 5776

In the weeks before Passover, Jews the world over read four special Torah portions. (These readings are in addition to the regular weekly Torah reading cycle, in which we read the entire Five Books of Moses cover-to-cover over the course of the year.)

Yesterday, we read the second of the four, Parashat Zachor. The text is as follows:
Remember (Zachor) what the Amalekites did on your way out of Egypt; that they happened upon you on the way and attacked the stragglers and all the weak ones in the rear when you were the most tired and exhausted, and they did not fear Gcd. Thus it shall be that when the Lcrd your Gcd establishes and makes you secure from your enemies around, in the Land that He will give you as an inheritance to possess it, erase (timcheh) the memory of Amalek from under the heavens - never forget (lo tishkach). (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
Amalek is archetypal evil. Amalek tells the world that there is no Gcd, no order in the universe, and therefore, no notion of good and bad. Amalek encourages war and chaos and destruction, because in that milieu he thrives - free to oppress the weak, to rape, pillage and plunder. Amalek is Haman. Amalek is Hitler. Amalek is Stalin. Amalek is every godless, Jew-hating despot who has trampled through the garden of human history.

Amalek viciously opposes both aspects of the Jewish national destiny - to be a Kingdom of Priests, i.e., to minister to Gcd on behalf of all the peoples of the earth, and to be a Holy Nation, distinct and set apart from the rest, focusing on our own spiritual development and maintaining our special relationship with Gcd.

Therefore, Amalek seeks to destroy the Jew, the conscience of the world. And it is against Amalek that the Jewish People must take a stand. That is the meaning and import of these verses.

But if we torque down on the verbiage used here, there seems to be an inherent contradiction. 

The opening and closing phrases of these verses are Zachor…Lo Tishkach - 'remember' and 'don't forget.' In opposition to that idea, we have the commandment to erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. 

Do you see the problem? If we successfully blot out Amalek from under the heavens, if we erase them and their memory from the history books (like Will and Ariel Durant tried to do to the Jews in their history of Western Civilization); if we really do that job properly, like reformatting a hard drive, there can be no trace of Amalek, and therefore nothing to remember. 

So which one is it: do we continually remind ourselves of their evil deeds, or do we reformat the hard drive of human history from any trace of Amalek?

And while we're asking hard questions, let’s pile on another: Immediately after the war with Amalek, Gcd tells Moses: 
Write this remembrance in a book, and speak it in the ears of Joshua: That I (Gcd) will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. (Exodus 17:14)
So who is supposed to be doing the blotting out - we here on earth, or Gcd on high?

To answer these questions, let’s come back to our first text, Parashat Zachor: First, how do we understand the seeming redundancy of Zachor-Lo Tishkach/Remember-Don't Forget?

There are several approaches to this problem.

The Sifri suggests that zachor suggest a verbal declaration, while lo tishkach is a commandment to keep this reality alive in the heart at all times.

The Malbim says that zachor is positive commandment while lo tishkach is a negative commandment, two sides of the same coin. 

The Ibn Ezra points out that lo tishkach is linked to, and intended to strengthen the zachor, meaning: even if you are not yet established and secure in the Land of Israel, not yet able to be pro-active against evil, always keep your passion against evil burning brightly.

Based upon this Ibn Ezra, one possible answer to our question is that the verses describe a sequence of events: the remembrance/not forgetting aspect of the mitzvah apply only before Amalek is eliminated. Once Amalek is successfully blotted out, the commandment to remember Amalek falls away.

Here is another possible approach.

Let’s look at the Hebrew word to erase, limchot. What is curious is that there is an even stronger Hebrew verb, limchok, to utterly blot out. It would seem that limchok denotes complete erasure, the language of wiping the hard drive. But the Torah doesn't use the language of mochek, it uses the language of mocheh. So what does mocheh mean?

Mocheh means erasing, as in scribblings on a piece of paper. And as any school child can tell you, no matter how hard you erase, some faint impression of what was written remains. 

Mocheh also means diluting or dissolving. Further, we see the word mocheh in the Talmud denoting protesting or annulling. 

For example, on Baba Batra 38b, a landowner can be mocheh, protest, against the illegal occupation of his property in the presence of two witnesses. And on Ketubot 11a, minors who are converted by their parents have the ability to be mocheh (annul or to protest) their conversion.

This understanding, taken together with the verses in Shemot/Exodus cited earlier, suggests the following:

Amalek rears it's ugly head in every generation. Therefore, in every generation the Jews have a moral obligation, a mitzvah, a charge - limchot - to dilute their influence, to protest their murderous actions, to annul their power with any means at our disposal.

But that job won't be finished in a single generation. Therefore, we have the parallel charge of zachor - to remember the evil that is Amalek; to remember that this war against Amalek will span many generations. 

As Rabbi Tarfon says in Avot 2:16: It is not your responsibility to singlehandedly complete the work [of perfecting the world]; but your inability to complete the task does not free you from the responsibility of contributing to it.

Perhaps this is why, even in the first encounter with Amalek, the Torah records that Joshua and his warriors were only able to weaken Amalek, but not vanquish them completely. [Exodus 17:13] Amalek survived to fight another day.

How do we dilute the influence of Amalek in the world? Any high school chemistry student can tell you that to dilute any strong concentration, you add more solvent. And the way that Rav Kook taught us to fight evil was not necessarily to confront it head on (although sometimes that, too, is necessary), but rather to flood the world with good: do more mitzvot, both in quantity and quality; study more Torah; reach out to our wayward brethren. By flooding the world with good, we dilute the power of evil.

Over the long span of time, through advances and retreats, every successive generation annuls, weakens, dilutes the influence of Amalek bit by bit, until the time of Mashiach. Then, the Glory of Gcd will be manifest in the world, and all doubts will be resolved. In that post-historical world, Gcd Himself will utterly obliterate evil from under the heavens.

May we all merit to witness that happy day.

Happy Purim.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Off the Hook - Reflections on Parashat Pekudei 5776

(Exodus 38:21-40:38)

Pssst. Don't tell anyone you heard it from me, but I heard that Moshe is a thief. 

Believe it or not, Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet and leader in the history of the Jewish People, is accused of petty theft in this week's Torah portion. Can you even believe it?  Here’s what happened:

According to the medieval commentary Daat Zkainim miBaalei HaTosafot, the bean-counters discovered that, somewhere between what was donated for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle and what was fabricated, there was some silver missing. The whispering campaign had begun. Maybe Moshe had pocketed a few shekels? Skimmed a few dollars off the top?

Moshe refers to the Mishkan as the Mishkan HaEdut, the Mishkan of Testimony, because the mishkan itself would testify to his innocence. He demands a recount of all the vessels in the Mishkan, and sure enough, 15 extra vavin/hooks were cast, which accounted for the discrepancy.

The Daat Zkainim goes on to say two fascinating things: First, the verse from last week that says V’Hamlachah Hayta Dayam, "...and the materials [donated] were sufficient for the work at hand." In gematria/numerology, the initials of those three words come to the number 15. Second, that having been exonerated from this terrible accusation, Moshe voiced 15 expressions of praise to Gcd, corresponding to the 15 extra hooks.  Thus the number 15 became associated with praise to Gcd. That is why, down to this day, we have 15 morning blessings, and we begin and end the section of the morning prayers dedicated to praising Gcd with 15 expressions of praise: 15 in the Baruch She’amar prayer, and 15 expressions of praise in the Yishtabach prayer. Neat. 

But let’s come back here for a minute. Imagine: lashon hara, baseless accusations against Moshe, threatened to mar the construction of the greatest spiritual shrine and engineering feat of ancient times. Forget the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Sphinx or the other wonders of the ancient world. The Mishkan eclipsed them all.

The building of Gcd’s sanctuary was thrown into tumult because of groundless accusations against an innocent person. Somehow, the malshinim, the whisperers, imagined that Moshe could be holy-looking on the outside, but corrupt on the inside…maybe just as corrupt as they were on the inside.  In psychology, this is called projection: that is, to deflect attention from yourself, you imagine your own faults in others. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story on this subject called Young Goodman Brown. Check it out sometime.

What is the antidote to lashon hara, slander? I think it can be found in the name of our Torah portion: Pekudei.

Following the commentaries, most translations render pekudei as “counting,” in Hebrew cheshbon, so that the opening phrases of our Torah portion read, "These is the accounting of the Mishkan, the Mishkan HaEdut, as was counted at the command of Moses..." Straightforward enough. 

But I think that that translation is inadequate. Why? Back in Chapter 21 of Genesis, the Torah says, V’Hashem pakad as Sarah c’asher amar…/And Gcd PKD-ed Sarah as He said he would..." Did Gcd count her there? Trust me, that lady was one of a kind, so that can't be. In this context, the Hebrew word root PKD seems to mean remember.

And what about later in Genesis 50:24, where Joseph says in his dying words to his brothers, Pakod ifkod etchem vha’aleita etchem…/And Gcd will certainly PKD you and bring you up out of this land [Egypt]..." - again same word root – but over here the sense of the word is that that Gcd will ultimately redeem the Jewish People from Egypt. But if PKD means to redeem, then isn’t the second half of the verse, "...and bring you up out of this land [Egypt]..." redundant?

Now of course it’s possible for one word to have multiple, disparate meanings. Count. Remember. Redeem. But I’d like to suggest a unified understanding of the word PKD that ties them all together.

Here’s the idea: the word root PKD means “that which Gcd focuses his attention upon.” So in our Torah portion, the first phrase, Ayleh HaPekudim/"These are the PKDs” refers to the fact that the A-lmighty was focused upon the materials used in the building of the Mishkan HaEdut in order to exonerate His faithful servant Moses against laughable accusations of wrongdoing.

By the birth of Isaac, Gcd focuses his attention upon Sarah in order that Avraham and Sarah could conceive the miracle baby Isaac in their dotage.

By Joseph, PKD means that Gcd will focus his attention on the Jewish People and their plight in Egypt, AND THEREFORE v'ha’aleta etchem, He will lift you up and return you to Eretz Yisrael.

Does that make sense?

Last week was Shabbat Shekalim, the first of the four special Torah readings in the run-up to Passover.  Guess what? the wording of PKD is also used in reference to the Machtzit HaShekel, the annual half shekel contribution donated by everyone over the age of twenty. (Exodus 30:12) Why? Because the half shekel was so much more than a census or a tax. As each individual passes by the pushka/coin box and drops in his half shekel contribution, he is, for that brief moment, the focus of Gcd's attention. Kivakorat Roeh Edro: This imagery is common on Rosh HaShanah, the Shepherd inspecting his flock one by one as each sheep passes through the narrow gate.

So if Gcd is focusing on us…then we had better get our squash together so that we might withstand His scrutiny.

How? The Talmud in Yoma 72b (which, by the by, is discussing the symbolism of the holy vessels of the Mishkan) quotes Rava as follows: a person should be like the Ark of the Covenant, covered inside and outside with gold, tocho k'baro. In other words, your inner being and private actions should be consistent with your outer self. If a person’s tocho is aino k'baro – that is, one’s public persona is religious, respectable, but their private thoughts and behavior are corrupt and reprehensible, such a person can never be a true servant of Gcd. Those are Rava’s words, not mine.

Elsewhere, (Brachot 28a) we learn that Rabban Gamliel refused entrance to his Academy to any student whose tocho was not k'baro.

The great malady of our times is that most of us lack the inner eye - we tend make snap judgments of our fellow solely on the basis of chitzoniut, externalities, and are blind to a person's pnimiut, their true nature. 

And so it is that scoundrels can dress like pious Jews and commit all kinds of monstrous sexual and financial crimes, whisper all manner of character assassination, project their own twisted sins upon others, and get away with it, all because they look religious. 

The behavior of these individuals is a Chillul Hashem, a repudiation of the very Gcd they purport to represent. 

But I take comfort in the fact that the truth always wins out in the end. "Rabbi Yochanan ben Broka said, 'Anyone who commits a chillul Hashem in private will come to have their crimes exposed in public." (Avot 4:5)

Tocho k'baro means being authentic. If we are truly focused on improving our own character traits, our own Torah learning, our own mitzvah performance, our own connectedness to Gcd, then we won't have time for lashon hara: not to speak it, or listen to it from others. And if it is spoken about you, you will be impervious, because, like Moses of old, you can be assured of Gcd’s help when the whisperers come gunning for you.

V'dai l'maivin.

Shabbat Shalom.

To read an earlier blog on this Torah portion, click HERE.