Eating: The Deeper Meaning
This parsha deals extensively with forbidden foods. To understand the meaning of forbidden foods, we need to look at a more fundamental issue: Why were people created with a need to eat at all?
The Need to Eat
Our need to eat is as natural as our need to breathe, and it’s precisely because it’s such a basic, instinctual need that we rarely give it any thought. However, if we stop and reflect for a moment, if we go back to the dawn of creation itself, then we can certainly ask: Why did God create the world, and people, the way He did? Why do we need to eat?
The vast world of pnimiut HaTorah—the beneath-the-surface layer of Torah that deals with our deepest understanding of things—deals with all of these matters. Why do we eat? Why do we sleep? Why do we have two arms and legs, why do we have two eyes and ears, but only one mouth? The insights that pnimiut HaTorah give us are wondrous. They open up remarkable dimensions of understanding not only into things like the basic human form, and human needs, but to the entire gamut of mitzvot. And so we return to our original question:
Why were people created with a need to eat at all?
What is Eating?
The act of eating is that which bridges and brings together the person—the one who eats—and the food, the object of eating. If we think about it, there are many ways through which elements in creation connect, even merge. Eating, however, not unlike the intimate merging of a husband and wife, is exceptionally, uniquely, deep. Eating and intimacy are where two become one.
The great sōd—the beneath-the-surface meaning—of eating, is to be found in the inner understanding that while creation seems to be physical; energy and atoms and matter, there is actually far, far more to existence. Within everything, every particle and every blade of grass, there is a nitzutz kodesh, an inner spark of sanctity, of pure spiritual essence. Just like for every human being there is far more to “I” than the eye perceives—there is a hidden, inner realm and reality that is the core, the soul, of the person. And the same is true with everything in creation. When it comes to food and eating, on the physical plane, the person ingests and absorbs into their body the food and it’s nutrients. On the spiritual plane, the person’s soul ingathers the nitzotzot—the inner sparks of light—that are the deepest essence of the food. Those holy nitzotzot, become part and parcel of the person’s richer spiritual reality.
Eating and Brachot
This is the sōd—the beneath-the-surface meaning—of eating, and this is why brachot, blessings are so significant. While the physical merging happens with the physical act of eating, the primary means through which the inner, spiritual co-mingling of a person’s neshama and the nitzotzot is effected is through the bracha.
This understanding of food, eating and blessings leads us to another layer of understanding. To a concept known as iylui ha’nevraim. This means that the spiritual status of elements in creation are not static. They can be elevated. The piece of fruit that one might eat, for example, when it’s essence is absorbed into a person’s soul, goes through a transformation from existing on the vegetative plane of existence, to the higher human plane. Actually, the spiritual food chain begins at an even lower place, on the plane of the inanimate. Before it can grow, a seed requires the chemical nutrients that come from dirt, sunlight, and water. Those humble origins are absorbed by the seed that then sprouts and grows into a fruit bearing tree whose fruit is eventually consumed by a person, thus reaching it’s highest state of being. When the person goes on to do an act of chesed and to learn Torah and fulfill mitzvot, then even the physicality of the fruit—the bodily health and strength it has given to the person—becomes part of the inner, spiritual dimension of life. And so—
Physical מאכל, physical food, is transformed into מלאך, a spiritual reality.
This then is the reason why we were created with the need to eat, and why eating is so very basic to life—
So that human beings would find room within themselves, so to speak, for things from a lower place, and, to include, incorporate, absorb and elevate them to a whole new, loftier, plane of existence.
Elevation, Fusion and Hitachdut
What we have discovered is that there are two processes within eating. There is the elevation of the sparks, and the inclusion and fusion of those sparks into the soul of the person. This fusion is known as hitachdut—a merging of two into one—and the notion of hitachdut goes to the very heart of creation itself.
The earliest, primordial roots of creation are echad; pure, undifferentiated unity. However, with creation, there was a shattering of the root level, pristine wholeness into scattered bits and pieces. The job of human beings is nothing less than to rebuild and restore that original achdut. This can be compared to a beautiful royal vessel that falls and shatters. The king then brings skilled craftsmen to carefully gather all the pieces and slowly restore the vessel to it’s original beauty. That’s creation, and that’s our world—
While the world appears to be filled with an endless variety of things that seem to be only loosely related, or not related at all, in fact, everything that exists is part of a grand, overarching, deeply interrelated existence. In a sense, every diverse and separate thing that exists in our world, is waiting to manifest it’s deepest inner potential as a wholly integrated part of one thing, one reality. If we extend our example further, it’s clear that the reconnection of all the pieces of the royal vessel requires great skill, care and precision. If just one piece, and certainly if many pieces, are attached to the wrong place, then the entire work is compromised. The same is true with eating. Not everything can be eaten. While everything has a place within the unity of creation, not everything has a place within the unity of the neshama. Some foods can harm and poison a person’s body. In a far deeper way, the spiritual essence within certain seemingly edible items are like foreign bodies that can interfere with the soul level health of a person. It’s here that the Torah tells us what we could never perceive on our own: which foods can be fused and elevated within our souls, and which can’t be.
Eating has enormous influence on us. It literally builds our bodies, the basis upon which our lives are built. Eating creates and fortifies the foundation for everything we can achieve. The firmer and healthier a foundation, the higher it can be built upon. The higher the refinement of our character can be, and the loftier the heights of our spiritual attainments can reach. For this reason, we need to have an attentive guard at the primary gateway to our inner being, our mouths. A guardian that knows what to allow in—what has permission to become absorbed into our selves, our souls—and what simply belongs elsewhere.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf