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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Yom Kippur - 2007/5768

You Are What You Don’t Eat

“You are what you eat,” said my grandmother; I was convinced as a little boy that I would grow up into one of her chocolate chip cookies. I was also convinced that the saying was uniquely hers. Obviously, I soon discovered that many of my friends’ parents and grandparents used the same expression—and I have yet to turn into a chocolate chip cookie. Still, I was so sure that the expression had to be a Jewish one that I checked in Rabbi Baron’s Treasury of Jewish Quotations and found nothing. In truth, the English expression did not emerge in popular use until just 65 years ago in a book by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr entitled You Are What You Eat: How to Win and Keep Health with Diet.

It is true—we used to treat the phrase lightly and with humor. Only in the last decade or so have we come to see how profoundly true the phrase may well be. Surely Morgan Spurlock showed us how much we physically become what we eat as he took his personal journey in Super Size Me. And Eric Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, demonstrated how dramatically we, as a nation, have become what we eat. The changes in America’s societal and cultural landscapes are as massive as the rising rates of obesity and diabetes. From farming to ranching to marketing to labor practices, the societal changes parallel the physical ones. In our physical beings and in our communities, we are what we eat.

Food on this Yom Kippur. We are now approaching midday and many of you are getting hungry. The hunger is, of course, a physical one—and some stomachs may be grumbling. But today, the most profound hunger we feel is a spiritual one—and our souls ought to be stumbling. So, today, this Yom Kippur, you are not what you eat. Instead, you are what you don’t eat. Is that not the commandment for this day? The words of Torah, from Leviticus 23, verse 27: Mark, the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you. “V’initem,” literally, “you shall afflict” “et nafshoteikhem” “your souls.”

Years before Spurlock or Schlosser wrote, Jon Margolis asked us to consider how hostile the very notion of fast food is to civilization, in which even simple, everyday meals should be savored and enjoyed. He wrote, “It is no accident that our religious traditions tell us to treat food as we treat that other bodily appetite that gets so much attention, enjoining us to enjoy the appetite but to control it, socialize it and even sanctify it.” To eat without a blessing is to become a thief; to eat without a blessing prohibits us from transforming an animal act into a sacred act of hope. Then, to eat without sitting down is absolutely forbidden. In fact, our tradition calls upon us to sit at a table with others when we eat and to discuss words of Torah; in so doing, we turn that table into a mikdash me’at, into an altar, a table of God’s.

On the other hand, animals eat anything, anytime their bodies demand. Animals eat standing up. And animals offer neither blessing nor words of Torah as they eat. That is why the expressions we use to describe the act of eating in this day and age are so unfortunately appropriate. “I’m going to feed my face.” Or, “Boy, did I stuff my mouth.” Or, most graphically, “did we pig out!”

And perhaps that is why we fast this day, why at this midday time, our stomachs are grumbling. For those words from Leviticus, “v’initem et nafshoteikhem” should be read not as “you shall afflict your souls” but rather as “you shall practice self-denial.” In fact, such is reflective of the new translation of the Jewish Publication Society. We fast to show that we can say no to our bodies, no to instinct, no to ourselves. We fast to show that we are human, not animal. No animal can abstain from food for ideological reasons; only human beings can. Fasting helps us learn to keep our appetites, our desires, our selves in check. Fasting helps us learn restraint, helps us learn to say “no.”

For that matter, what else is kashrut but a way to say “no” to our bodies, to our instincts, to our selves. A dietary regimen, kashrut is Judaism’s compromise with the ideal of the Garden of Eden, of obtaining food without killing. Originally, we were all vegetarians like Adam when he named the animals by asking what they wanted to be called. Only after Noah did we start to eat some meat–some, but not all. And, when we do, part of that compromise is that we cannot take the deaths of any of God’s creatures lightly; we must take those lives with compassion, with as little pain as possible.

Consider. People who choose to go on a diet may say to themselves, “I know I am not supposed to eat dessert. I know I really shouldn’t reach for that second portion.” And, for several days at a time, they do just fine. Then, one day, when they are tense or tired or the food looks very good and some chocolate brownie just beckons, they will mutter to themselves, “I know it’s wrong, but it looks so good. Just once wouldn’t be so terrible.” And so they cheat, promising themselves that they will make up for it at the next meal or on the next day or sometime the next week. Compare these people with those who have a different form of dietary regimen; they choose to keep kosher. They say to themselves, “I know I’m not supposed to eat that lobster.” And they do not–not for days and not for months, not even when they are hungry or the food is tempting or when they are tired or tense.

Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests we think of fasting by placing ourselves at some future time, at a time when happiness will depend on being able to say no to something tempting. Imagine yourself facing a shady business deal, a compromise of your principles, an illicit sexual adventure. If you have had virtually no experience saying “no,” if the message from parents and others has been (to use the words of the old song), “if you want it, here it is, come and get it,” what are the chances of your acting properly at that moment? And what are your chances for happiness? But if you have practiced the control of instinct, of saying no to food, how much better will your chances be? You are what you don’t eat.

Yet our haftarah this morning tells us, in no uncertain terms, another reason for our fast this day. You heard Isaiah proclaim:

Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Eternal? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not the share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?

One of my favorite stories bears retelling now, the story of a hassid who went to his rebbe to boast that he had made a beggar pray. The beggar had come for a little food; he was hungry. The hassid sought to save a soul. Thus the hassid insisted to the beggar, “Before you eat, you must pray–not just motzi, but all of minha and all of ma’ariv, all of the afternoon and evening services.”

Angry at his boasting, the rebbe reprimanded the hassid, “You may have meant well but you did not act well. For there are times when you must act as if there were no God in this world.”

“No God in this world.”

“That’s right,” continued the rebbe, “When one comes to you in need, you must act as if no power in the world, neither God nor human, can help him or her except you, yourself.”

“But what about his soul?” begged the hassid.

“You take care of your soul,” answered the rebbe, “and his body.”

That, too, is why we fast this day, why, at this midday time, our stomachs are grumbling. For our fast is not only to teach self-control, it is also to engender empathy. Our fasts of self-control and our fasts of empathy will end tonight; those whose fasts are of famine will not. And God is not at all interested in whether we starve our bodies; God wants our grumbling stomachs to move us to feed the hungry. No matter how often we bow our heads; no matter how harshly we afflict our souls, we have not done what God wants us to unless and until we share our bread with those of our brothers and sisters who have no bread of their own.

Na’aseh v’nishmah–we will do and we will hear. That is what our ancestors said to God at Sinai. To understand something, to truly feel something, you often must do it first. And if you wish to change how you feel, you change what you do. It is deductive learning if you will—you become what you do. When our fasts of empathy are over–having felt the hunger of one day–we should be moved to fill up those MAZON envelopes with checks and those bags with food to help those whose hunger goes on day after day after day.

Our souls, their bodies. Read then the words “v’initem et nafshoteikhem” not “you shall afflict your souls;” read them rather as “and your souls shall respond.” For the Hebrew word v’initem comes from the Hebrew root ayin-nun-heh which also means to answer, to respond. Our stomachs may grumble, but in coming here–to this time, to this place–our souls are healing. And in this fast of empathy, they respond to the hungry, to the homeless, to all our brothers and sisters in need. You become what you don’t eat.

And God loves us–we know that this is so. Love, that irrational, intense yearning for another’s sake; that desire to be at one with one you love. And love can make one do funny things. Perhaps you remember Rabbi Larry Kushner’s selfless search in the middle of the night for a chocolate bar with peanuts. His wife, then seven months pregnant with their second child, awakened him and whispered,” I know it’s the middle of the night, but I would so much love a chocolate bar–preferably one with peanuts.” He takes on this mission as an honor and writes, “My anxiety is not the lost sleep, but that I will not be able to locate the right candy bar. For the better part of an hour, I drive past closed stores until I remember the candy machine at the Holiday Inn. During all this time, I do not have a self of my own. I am my wife’s agent. My pleasure comes from ignoring my self, losing my self. How strange and chastening to realize that by serving another self, your self can be so fulfilled.”

If only our relationships with God were so pure and pleasurable and easy. Yet most of us are too distant, frightened over such a relationship yet yearning for it at one and the same time. Perhaps, in fact, such is the definition of sin–that which distances oneself from others and, thus, from God. And the more we sin, the lonelier it gets. And then the One who loves us is lonely also. It is not that God loves us less as we sin and grow more distant; it is rather that God misses us more. Think of all of the traditional texts that tell of God waiting for us, desiring us, almost begging for us to reach out. Listen just to one–“Though you be far from Me, I will draw near and heal you–if you come toward Me!”

God, our Lover, has asked us to fast. Such makes God happy. And that is why, at this midday time, our stomachs are grumbling. While we know this favor asked is not the beginning of our love, it surely is part of its repair. We have grown so distant and God yearns for us to return. We may not fully understand all God wants; in fact, as Larry Kushner points out, if it all made sense, we would do it all by ourselves without being asked. But God, the One Who loves us, the One Whom we love, has asked. So, in response to God’s request, in the middle of last night and at this midday time, we fast.

Thus now read the words “v’initem et nafshoteikhem” not as “you shall afflict your souls” or as “your souls shall respond;” read them rather as, “you shall cause your souls to sing.” For that Hebrew root ayin-nun-heh, from v’initem, can also mean to sing out, to lift up one’s voice in song. Our stomachs may grumble, but our souls sing for joy. For we are losing ourselves in serving the Holy One. God has asked us to fast—our souls sing—we are what we don’t eat. And we rejoice.

V’initem et nafshoteikhem. So we fast–to learn self-control; we fast–to engender empathy and begin to heal; we fast–to please and bring us closer to God. It is midday–our stomachs are grumbling–and we travelers are getting a little hungry. Yet our spiritual journeys of this day are not yet over. We still have hours to go. Our fast of self-control should remind us not to run fast from here, fleeing when this morning service is over or when Yizkor, our Memorial Service, concludes, but rather that we continue to fast here as the gates begin to close. Our fast of empathy should remind us of how many people steadfastly await our help. And our fast of love should keep us in song, joyously serving the One we love. Then, tonight, as we are sealed in the Book of Life, let us break our fasts together–not with fast food but over a table, sharing some words of Torah. For today we are what we don’t eat.

V’initem et nafshoteikhem–Let our souls sing out–this day
(with thanks to Rabbi Harold Kushner)

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784