The Sara Litton z"l Monthly Emunah Essay | Feeding our body and our soul - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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The Sara Litton z”l Monthly Emunah Essay | Feeding our body and our soul

Adina Ellis

Food is such an essential part of our lives. We menu plan, grocery shop, chop, stir, saute and bake, intuitively knowing that feeding ourselves, our family and loved ones is much more than a purely physical task. It is a combination of physical and spiritual and a means to connect. There’s a reason why even with the popularity of online recipes, millions of cookbooks are sold yearly and new ones are regularly published and appreciated. This focus on enjoying good food is biblical in origin. From the onset of Creation, God informs Adam and Chava what they can eat  (Bereishit 1:29) and this is even stated in command form (Bereishit 2:16), saying “of every tree in the garden you shall eat.”  We are given a divine directive to enjoy all of the wonders of God’s world and thereby connect to Him and connect between our physical and metaphysical parts.

An unexpected comment is made in the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12) that an individual will be held accountable for seeing produce and not taking enjoyment from it. While we can only postulate whether this mandate might include such derivatives as mint-chocolate chip ice cream or lemon cream pie, it seems that the gemara is not only encouraging us to eat our greens, but to marvel at the array of colorful and varied foods available to us. Hashem provides us with so much beautiful bounty and eating is a daily opportunity to relish in these delights.

How fitting, then, that the 15th of the month of Iyar is precisely the time when the heavenly manna arrived (Shemot 16:1-5), day after day, month after month, and nourished us throughout our 40 years in the desert. When the unidentifiable substance rested upon the surface of the wilderness, the children of Israel looked at one another and questioned “what is it?” מָן הוּא” for they didn’t know what it was (Shemot 16:14-15).

Surprisingly, even though Moshe answered the people and said that it was bread from God, they did not begin to refer to it as lechem, bread. This substance continues to be called מָן, manna, or “what” in Aramaic (see Daniel and Ezra) through the 40 years in the desert and within Tanakh. The inflection of the question is left to the reader- this query may have been accompanied by a look of surprise or fascination.

Truly this notion of physical sustenance at the hands of some unidentified matter, thin as frost, (Shemot 16:14) likened to coriander seeds (see Bamidbar 11:7) is unfathomable. How can a spiritual bread, coming down from the heavens, nourish the physical bodies of Am Yisrael? Eating as we know it seems to be a purely physical act but surely by sustaining the body we are also enabling the soul to maintain its place in this world. Without a corporeal home, our lofty neshama has nowhere to reside. Just as the spiritual manna fed our body and soul, our meals today do the same.

This inherent dichotomy and ultimate connection between the physical and spiritual is part of the essence of the time period in which the entire month of Iyar resides. Sefirat ha’omer, the counting of the omer encompasses the entire month of Iyar. It is a time where we are meant to climb spiritual rungs to get us closer to accepting the Torah. On the heels of our physical redemption at Passover, we gradually ascend within ourselves, through the inner work of tikkun hamiddot – working on behaviors and attributes associated with the sefirot- and through learning Jewish values and principles in Pirkei Avot, to reach the apex of ma’amad Har Sinai.

The word “omer” refers to the amount of manna that was collected, specifically a tenth of an ephah (Shemot 16:36) and it is the same unique word used to describe the first harvest of barley waved by the Kohen on Passover (Vayikra 23: 10-15, see Rashi on 23:10) and from which the phrase “counting of the omer” stems. The spiritual food which rained down from the heavens is intrinsically linked to the process we are in the midst of from the exodus of Egypt towards Mount Sinai. The holiday of Shavuot is the 50th day after the Omer-offering, a day in which a more refined bead, two loaves of fine wheat flour are waved. The process of barley to wheat is discussed by Chassidic masters as the process from a more animalistic, base level of existence to a more human, refined, spiritual one (See Netivot Shalom on parshat Emor) and this parallels our work in the seven-week process, wholly encompassing Iyar, of sefirat ha’omer. In a certain fashion, our counting of the omer is reminiscent of collecting the omer of manna. Each day we collect spiritual nourishment, one portion at a time. Aspects of love, restraint, compassion, humility, nobility are associated with the sefirot of the 49-day counting.

The idea of Iyar connecting the physical and spiritual- from physical to spiritual redemption, from unprocessed barley to refined wheat, and as a time of gaining physical sustenance from a spiritual source (the manna)- brings us to a deeper understanding of the tribe associated with the month of Iyar, namely the tribe of Yissachar. The tribe has very little mention in the Tanakh, and scant individuals as noted leaders. However, Yissachar is understood to be a tribe with great devotion to Torah learning.

“And of Zevulun he said: Rejoice Zevulun on your journeys, and Yissachar, in your tents (Devarim 33:18).

Rashi there, based on Breishit Rabbah 99:9 explains, the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun had a partnership- Zevulun dwelled seaside, going out in ships and trading to make a profit and provide food for the tribe of Yissachar who would occupy themselves with Torah study. Even though Zevulun is the younger of the two, he is mentioned first, since it is the sustenance which he provides which enables Yissachar’s Torah learning.

We see the midrash places great emphasis on sustaining physical needs in order to achieve spiritual ones, in other words: taking care of the body in order to take care of the soul. Fittingly, a passage in Avot relates to this. Rebbe Elazar ben Azarya said (Avot 3:17) אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח. If there is no bread (lit. flour) there is no Torah; where there is no Torah there is no bread. One who does not have physical sustenance cannot maintain their Torah learning or spiritual selves.

Feeding ourselves and those we love is so much more than a physical act. It provides a basis for spiritual growth. Just as Hashem directed the first humans to eat and enjoy the rich bounty- the directive continues- enjoy the delicious food that you are blessed with. See the fruit at the grocer with wonder and joy- “man hu?!” What’s this? Wow!”

In many families, the women are often involved in cooking and baking – the image of the savta, the mom, the mother-in-law presenting her family with freshly baked cookies or a hot bowl of chicken soup- we intrinsically know these “comfort foods” do much more than abate the hunger. In chapter two of Genesis, ha’Adam was created from two distinct aspects of earth עָפָר מִן־הָאֲדָמָה and נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים, soul, (Bereishit 2:7) in advance of the creation of woman. The verse emphasizes that woman was taken from the already formed human (Bereishit 2:21) to illustrate that the feminine power is inherently an amalgam of spiritual and physical (see Nir Menussi, מי זאת עולה, pgs 21-27). Women naturally and intuitively recognize the cohesion between the tangible and the transcendental.

Next time you flip through a cookbook and see the worn pages, the stains and markings, know that you have created physical and spiritual sustenance, enabled the body to be a home for the soul and emulated the manna by bringing a bite of something heavenly into this world, with or without the mint-chocolate chip ice cream.

Adina Ellis

Adina Ellis

is a graduate of the Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute. She has been teaching Tanakh and machshava over the last two decades, initially on college campuses and in Hebrew Schools in the New Jersey area. Since making aliyah in 2005, she has given weekly shiurim in Hebrew and English to women in her community. Adina has taught in the ALIT program and Rosh Chodesh seminars run by the OU Women's Initiative as well as in the mother-daughter "learn and art" program of OU Israel. She is known for her unique ability to facilitate in-depth textual learning along with engaging and relevant discussions. Adina lives with her husband and children in Yad Binyamin.