Mindful Eating: Gratitude and Celebration

Into their second year of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites again take to “complaining bitterly before the Lord” about their current situation, idealizing their slavery in Egypt as a time when all that they needed was provided for them. This parsha, Behalotecha, highlights the difficulty of the coming of age of the Israelites as a people, as they struggle to accept the morality and responsibility being asked of them by God.

The specific complaint of the Israelites in this parsha is the inadequacy of the manna provided by God for their sustenance “…And the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt…Now our gullets are shriveled and we have nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” Despite having a constant and reliable food source, the Israelites are not satisfied.

We read that no matter how much or how little manna a person gathered, the amount he came away with was always a standardized amount, the same for each person. As the sun rose, the manna would disappear until the next morning. This system of food distribution created an egalitarian society where no one could hoard resources and each person’s share was equal.

What can we learn from this parsha? The Israelites scorned manna despite its description in the Torah as a tasty, filling food. It seems there was something inherently unsatisfying about the miraculous nature through which this food was provided. Because they were not involved in its cultivation, the Israelites had no connection to the production of this sustenance and therefore no ability to appreciate it.

Today, in our post-industrial world, we are not intimately connected to the production and cultivation of what we eat. Therefore, we are more likely to make decisions that are more harmful, both for ourselves and for the environment. When I eat without thinking, I grab whatever is on hand and don’t stop to consider the implications of what I’m doing. In these instances I make unhealthy and uniformed decisions, and I am unable to feel any real sense of thankfulness for or satisfaction from my food.

On the other hand, when I am conscious in my food choices, I consider so many aspects of what I’m eating, including the land the food was grown on, the conditions of the farmers who grew it, the transportation system that brought the food to me, and the amount of resources used in its production. While these questions can sound burdensome, asking them is a useful tool for learning the story of our food and for creating an opportunity to feel true appreciation. Eating is one of the most intimate acts we can partake in, which is why we are commanded to bless our meals both before and after we have eaten.  The more we know about our food, the more sincere and deep our blessings of thankfulness can become.

In 2005 I spent four months at Adamah, working a four-acre organic farm, rooted in an intentional Jewish community working towards sustainability. From being out on the land every day, we learned what blossoms looked like before they turned to squash, what nutrients the soil required to regenerate itself during the winter, which bugs like to crawl on which fruits, and how the amount of sun and rain affected each type of plant differently. Filled with knowledge about our food, we were able to taste the difference in each tomato, and to associate each meal with the weather, experiences, and seasons that went along with the growth and harvest of each plant. In this setting, when we blessed our food at the start of each meal, we were filled with gratitude for the sun, the soil, the rain, the insects, and our fellow farmers. With this more intimate knowledge we are more able to appreciate the abundance that surrounds us and therefore to offer the fullest blessings to God.