Getting In Shape – For the Final Redemption!

Chaya Miriam (Cynthia) Moline
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!


NOTES: 

(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: 

https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20190219005700/en/Nutrisystem-Announces-Fourth-Quarter-Full Year-2018 

(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?” 

https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4463795/jewish/What-Was-the-Manna.htm 

(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!”