Getting In Shape – For the Final Redemption!
Essays 2020 / Finalists
The background topic of this essay is the unparalleled success of two opposite-pole industries in the US: The ever-thriving food industry, and the brazenly successful diet industry, both paragons of unmatched revenue. It offers insight on how our own million-year observances are a shield and a response to these challenges. With this background, the focus of this essay is on Chapter 27 of the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya drawing from the richness and wisdom it contains, and bringing to light its undeniable relevance. Finally, the goal of this essay is to reframe the whole topic, making the case that both the tremendous success of the food and diet industries and the challenges they pose are not coincidental in our time – but portentous, perfectly timed, and precursors themselves to the era of Moshiach.
Feeling caught in the crossfire of abundant, enticing, ubiquitous food, and perpetual dieting?
Take heart, you are not alone. Food these days is not only abundant in quantity – but everywhere you turn. Enticing us with produce available regardless of the season, new flavors to try, exotic dishes from remote corners of the world, and even “low sodium” and “fat free” modalities of our good old favorites.
Blessed to live in America and to benefit from its overall prosperity, we are no less vulnerable to the challenges that come with living in perhaps the most prosperous country in the world. This prosperity comes with its challenges. One of them being the fact that our economy, based on the principles of the free market, depends on consumption. The foundation of this strong economy, and what keeps it going is consumption, and food, though a basic need, has key role in the fortitude of the economy.
Abundant as it is, food is so omnipresent that we don’t notice or give much thought to it, rarely considering where it came from and everything that was orchestrated on our behalf so that we could enjoy a piece of fruit, a quick bite for lunch, or a sumptuous meal. The whole eating experience seems to be one of consuming “on auto-pilot”, transitory, and soon forgotten by design – just so we can start all over again.
What we eat, “has changed more in the last forty years than in the previous forty thousand. Foods that may look familiar have in fact been completely reformulated” (1). It must be the reference to the “previous forty-thousand years”, because the first thing that comes to mind is matzah – now available in “Rosemary & Sea Salt” flavor and labeled “Non-GMO” (2). Indeed, the kosher food industry is not only not immune to our thriving economy and its trends – but has taken center stage in the last decade.
The fastest growing segment of the food industry today, the kosher market is valued at $13 billion and expanding by more than 10 percent each year. Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of products, from canned staples to gourmet cuisine, mass-produced flavors and hand-crafted baked goods are certified kosher (3).
Not shy to join the booming food industry, nor restrained in their marketing efforts, the kosher food industry and the certification agencies have elevated kosher food to first class world-wide, expanding our possibilities and the choices of food products we consume – but also making us vulnerable to the consuming trends and habits of the larger population, and creating needs unknown to previous generations.
Like the need to be on a diet to gain control over eating patterns and habits, the need to return to a previous healthier weight or, at its worse, the need to conform to weight ideals and body images alien to the Jewish way of living. The diet industry, gladly plays its part, aggressively marketing its products and luring everyone dissatisfied with their weight or body shape – and in the process, generates revenue that can raise the eyebrows of the most seasoned CEOs. (4).
Our collective relationship with food is indeed legendary, as it spans five millennia. It is unique in that it is not only comfortable but essential to our relationship with G-d, our service (avodah) to Him, and therefore intrinsic to our identity. This relationship is distinctive to our place and mission in the world, and integral to our Redemption – then and now.
As we recount every year at Sedarim, we left Mitzrayim in haste (5). And just a few weeks later, on the fifteenth day of the second month after leaving Egypt, our voicing a communal complaint to Moshe and Aharon, elicited a response from G-d. A response so infinite, so loving, and so vast, we are still benefiting from its lessons: Meat and Manna (in Hebrew, מן ,which is more accurately transliterated as mon) arrived. Directly from above, from The Source of It All.
After 40 years of being fed directly by G-d, after Moshe’s passing, the manna ceased to come down from heaven, and we were faced with new responsibilities, new challenges and calls to action on our part that are today more relevant than ever:
▪ To toil for sustenance and make a keili, (a “receptacle”) to receive it – yet knowing in our innermost that sustenance comes directly from G-d and no other source. (6)
▪ To learn to gauge our own measure of satiation (7) and, perhaps more importantly
▪ To develop the “soul muscles” and exercise the inner strength of restraint in the realm of the permissible.
This is important if we bring back into focus that the largest kosher certification agency in the US provides certification for over one million products, making available to us a variety of products beyond anybody’s imagination just a decade ago.
This is no small feat, especially if we take into consideration that it is barely 75 years ago that we experienced the biggest threat to our survival as a People.
Images of emaciated Jews who survived to tell the horrors of the extermination camps come to mind, and in a more tender image, the brave balebustas who, undernourished and starving in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp of Terezín, defied despair by
exchanging recipes and recreating in their minds the foods and dishes that brought delight to their loved ones. (8)
If bitachon, emunah, and the strength to rebuild were the call to action for the previous generation – we can confidently state that they succeeded, and that today’s abundance and prosperity are part of their legacy.
When in our history as a People have we experienced such abundance not only of food but of kosher food available to us?
Yet a better, more meaningful question is Why – For What Purpose?
This is the question we attempt to point at through this essay – along with the very modest insight that at this very moment in our collective history, marked by abundance, we are called in to set in place a particular piece of the puzzle that can bring the overall puzzle of the Final Redemption one step closer to completion.
That this “piece of the puzzle” is comprised of the Alter Rebbe’s lessons on “iskafiah” (conquering of our animal instincts), and is’hapcha (complete transformation of the very same instincts); And that this is the avodah of our generation.
That it is perhaps for this task and for this challenge, and for this particular time in History it is that The Alter Rebbe wrote Chapter 27 and its lessons (9):
- That we serve G-d by curbing our appetite in the realm of the permissible, by disciplining ourselves and learning to subjugate our base, animal instincts.
- Most importantly, we “Don’t’ Have To Consume Everything That Is Permissible” (10).
- That postponing the permissible (in this case the food we so want to consume), is always a lofty service to G-d.
- That in controlling our desires and working on disciplining ourselves, G-d does reciprocate, bestowing upon us additional blessings.
- And that “Who is strong? Whoever conquers his own temptations”.
Our call is to take active part in the process of self-refinement, accessing our very own practices and observances that have carried us through the centuries:
- Acknowledging that food and everything that nourishes us and sustains us comes from above – even if not in the form of manna. This, on its own gives food a different meaning and transforms our own understanding of it from mere “consuming food” to being recipients of a gift from Above.
- Understanding that coarse as it may seem, food is nothing but the life force with which G-d lovingly sustains us. (Sushi smushi – this is nothing but the very same energy with which G-d sustains His world!)
- Receiving this life force (in whatever manner it might take – choose your own food from a food pyramid) always with sincere gratitude and making space within our conscious decisions to utter a blessing to the Source of It All Who in His Lovingkindness has orchestrated a myriad of events just so we could take delight in this particular food. Pausing for a moment to utter a brocha might seem of no major consequence, but never underestimate the power of delaying gratification, nor the power of words of blessing uttered with full kavanah to transform not only the food stuff you are about to consume – but to transform ourselves as well! This postponing our consumption, even if for the few seconds it takes to utter a brocha is, indeed, a major step in controlling our impulses and appetites.
- And in the same vein, making sure to sustain the awareness our body signals of having reached a point of satiation – to thank Him again for that delicious feeling of being nourished and taken care of by no other but The Master of The Universe Himself. Having been the recipient of a measure of wellbeing (whether in the form of a drink, a quick nosh or a full meal) the joy this measure of wellbeing has produced has the power to breach barriers.
- Always bearing in mind that that eating, when done with the right awareness, focus and intention (kavanah) is an act through which we sanctify the world – an act of kedusha.
Recently, a preeminent provider of continued Jewish Education offered a course on Jewish contributions to humanity. In it, it pointed how hard it is today to imagine a world with zero days off or inequality before the law, attesting to fundamental Jewish ideas evolving into universal values.
It is the core argument of this essay that we are now called to effect within ourselves a shift regarding our relationship with food, and by doing so and mastering our lessons, both as individuals and as a People, we “prime” the world to take the next step upwards.
We are at a “leading-edge moment” and called to step up to a new level in our service to G-d (avodah) – through our “relationship” with what is perhaps the coarsest aspect of our existence: Food. We are called to uncover its coarseness and expose it for what it really is and has always been: The very life force with which G-d in His lovingkindness sustains us – and invites us to take delight in His Gan (His Garden).
Carefully studying the lessons contained in chapter 27 of the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya, one gets the sense that these lessons are not only “applicable” or “relevant” but that he wrote them specifically for these times and is addressing the challenges we face with at this very moment.
The good news is that when it comes to relating to food with kedusha – we are literally thousands of years ahead of the game.
This piece of the Final Redemption puzzle has our collective name on it – spelled out in neon lights!
(1) “Fast Food Nation” The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
(2) Granted, matzah’s first documented appearance is “only” 3331 years ago but the association prompted by Schlosser’s quote seems valid.
(3) Lubicom Kosher analysis; 2003–2013 and statistics and information provided by OK Kosher certification: www.ok.org/companies/get-certified/get-certified-kosher
(4) According to their own websites:
SlimFast, the original meal replacement drink, a pioneer in the diet industry, and one of the fully certified kosher products reported a $212 million of revenue back in 2017.
Weight Watchers reported $1.5 billion in total revenue for the fiscal year 2018.
Jenny Craig projected to generate roughly $400 million of revenue in 2018.
Nutrisystem’s full year revenue for 2019 was expected to be in the range of $682 to $702 million.Information reported on Business Wire:
(5) Sefer Shmos. Parashas Bo – 34 and 39: “The people picked up their dough when it was not yet leavened. Their leftovers (of matzah and bitter herbs) were wrapped in their robes on their shoulders.” “They baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt into cakes of matzos, for it had not leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt, and they could not delay. Furthermore, they had not made provisions for themselves”
(6) Per The Rebbe’s sicha for Shabbos Parashas Beshalach 5751, “In other words, it is not the hard work in itself that brings a person his daily brad; G-d provides a Jew with food in a manner which is not limited to the rules of nature. But in order not to disturb the natural order which He created, G-d garbs His gift in natural phenomena…”
(7) The manna served as a great lesson in faith. “Every day, enough manna would fall for each person to have an omer (approximately 43 oz.), which was enough to feel satiated for one day.” Yehuda Shurpin author of the article “What Was The Manna?”
(8) “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín” is a beautiful memorial to the brave women who defied Hitler by preserving a part of their heritage and a part of themselves. Written by undernourished and starving women in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp of Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt), the recipes give instructions for making beloved dishes in the rich, robust Czech tradition.
(9) Mindful of the maximum length allowed, the author of this essay focuses on “iskafiah”, the first part of the self-refinement process as established by the Alter Rebbe and that corresponds to conquering of our animal instincts, leaving is’hapcha (transforming the very same instincts) the second part of the process, hopefully for another essay.
(10) In the words and inimitable wit of master teacher Rabbi Yehoshua Gordon A”H: “Just because the meat is kosher – you don’t have to eat the whole cow!”