Eating Your Torah for Dinner
In Parshat Beshalach, the Bechor Shor presents a non-traditional interpretation that has profound implications for the relationship between food and Torah. The Torah tells us:
“They came to Marah, and could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter, which is why it was called Marah. And the people complained to Moses, saying, “What can we drink?" And he cried to God, and God showed him wood, and he threw it into the water and the water was sweetened. There He gave them chok umishpat, and there He tested them. (Shemot 15:23-25)”
The standard translation of verse 25, as suggested by Rashi and others, is that the word chok means law. According to this approach, the Torah is telling us that after the incident of the bitter waters, the people were taught Torah laws. What is the connection? The study of and adherence to Torah law is a reaction or solution to the problem of the bitter waters. This translation of the word chok makes a lot of sense in the context of the word mishpat, which also refers to law. Rashi quotes from the Gemara in Sanhedrin 56 that the Jewish people received some of the Torah laws when they were in Marah, like Shabbat, parah adumah and civil law. These laws would perhaps shed proper perspective on food, drink and physicality to prevent Marah-like incidents from reoccurring.
The Bechor Shor has a very different approach. He translates the word chok as mazon, which means food or sustenance. He bases this translation on Genesis 47:22 where the word chok refers to food. Therefore according to the Bechor Shor, verse 25 is recapping the incident that just occurred. The Torah is simply saying that since the waters of Marah were sweetened, Marah is therefore the place where the people were given sustenance. At first glance this would seem redundant, but there is a deeper meaning (especially because the verse contains not only the word chok, but also mishpat).
The synthesis of the opinion of the Bechor Shor and that of Rashi leads to a profound message about Torah law. The word chok can mean both food (Bechor Shor) and Torah law (Rashi, Sanhedrin 56).
This dual meaning allows us to suggest that the observance of Torah law is not just a disconnected, post facto way of dealing with the problems presented at Marah. Rather it was the Torah itself that sweetened the waters. The Torah (chok) was the sustenance (mazon). Torah provides sustenance to the soul, like food provides sustenance to the body. A life devoid of adherence to Torah law would be akin to starvation.
In addition to learning a lesson about Torah, we can also learn a lesson about food.
As we know in life, food can taste different at different times. A person who is starving will marvel over a stale piece of bread which he would otherwise not touch. A person who is sick will lose his appetite for his favorite food. A person who only eats kosher will be repulsed by the idea of eating treif. There is certainly a mental component to food and taste. So too, a person immersed in Torah can develop a healthy attitude towards food, and can even sweeten that which was otherwise perceived to be inedible.