Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
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PARSHAT MISHPATIM/SHEKALIMShemot (Exodus) 21:1-24:18
Maftir Shemot 30:11-16
Haftorah - II Kings 11:17 - 12:17
This Shabbat is special because it is the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh (the new month of ) Adar (Tuesday and Wednesday) and it is also called Shabbat Shekalim. On Shabbat Shekalim we recall that while the Temple stood a census was taken of all men 20 years old and over; each man was required to donate a half Shekel of silver (Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-16), and the money collected was used for the upkeep of the Temple and for the various communal offerings. Every year, on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Adar we remind ourselves of our Galut (exile) by reading a special Maftir (the last Aliyah) and a special Haftorah.
FOOD AS THEOLOGY
“And they saw the G-d of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld Hashem, and did eat and drink.” (Exodus 24:10-11)
Picture the scene. The Torah has just been given; the sin of the Golden Calf has not yet been recorded. Moses, Aaron and his children, and the seventy elders of Israel, are invited up the holy mountain. There they experience a vision of the Divine Glory. We can only dimly imagine it; what does it mean to see Hashem? And what is their reaction: do they fall on their faces? Utter hymns of praise? Merge with the cosmic consciousness? No: they have lunch - they Chaped-a-Nosh. Already back then, we find the penchant and pre-occupation that Jews have for food.
The incongruity of the text did not escape the classical commentators. Rashi, citing the Targum Onkelos, attempts to apologize for the apparently sacrilegious behavior: “Do you think that they ate food? No, they `feasted their eyes' on the presence of Hashem.”
The eating and drinking, the Targum suggests, is a metaphor for the joy the participants felt upon beholding Hashem. In a more modern vein, Professor Nachum Sarna suggests that the ritual of covenantmaking was typically followed by a ceremonial meal. The covenants between Isaac and Avimelech and between Jacob and Laban are also followed by eating and drinking (Genesis 26:30 & 31:54).
But, I think, we need not be embarrassed by Moses and his party. We are being taught that there is a relationship between food and theology that is far more profound than the gastronomic Judaism of later generations.
What is the source of energy for the world? The source of energy for all things is Hashem, of course. But, the Almighty generally works through the food chain: big fish eat little fish. Through the combined miracles of photosynthesis, cell reproduction, human biology and good kosher restaurants, we are sustained each day: “You open Your hand and satisfy all that lives” (Psalms 145:16).
One medieval commentator suggests that when Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu and the seventy elders ascended the holy mountain, they were at such a lofty spiritual height that they bypassed the normal channels; they were physically sustained directly from Hashem.
At that moment they perceived Hashem not only with their intellects and emotions, but with their internal organs as well: “Taste and experience how good is the Lord!” (Psalms 34:9). The normal boundary between the spiritual and the physical was shown to be flawed; theology and cuisine were intertwined. To be human was understood in its fullest meaning; seeing Hashem, they understood that humans are created in Hashem's image, and the sacred feast is a perfectly appropriate religious response to holiness.
It is in this spirit that we can understand the celebratory side of Yom Kippur. On that day, we remind ourselves that eating is not just a physical requirement, but, a way to experience Hashem's bounty. Hunger, fulfillment, want and plenty; these are all windows through which we can glimpse His Glory. By transcending biology for twentyfive hours, we, too, bypass the food chain and gain our physical nourishment directly from Hashem. This is an occasion for celebration. But the fasting of atonement is just half of the ritual of the day; the eve of the Day of Atonement, is, according to tradition, to be spent in feasting!
I knew a woman who certainly intuited this intertwining of the spiritual and the physical when she prepared her recipes; all of her written instructions used the standard Yahrzeit (death memorial candle) glass as the accepted unit of measure: one Yahrzeit glass of flour, a half yahrzeit glass of sugar.
To be sure, this synergy of body and soul, food and Frumkeit (religiosity), is not an excessively subtle point. It's just that when it occurs to us, we usually dismiss it as unauthentic. And, of course, there is that annoying ascetic religious tradition that denies the holiness of the body and sees selfdenials as the only path to Hashem. Thankfully, the Sabbaths and festivals of the calendar weakens such moroseness.
Hashem is the author of human biology, and we can experience Hashem's presence through our most basic needs and sensations. The procurement, preparation, serving and enjoyment of food have always been opportunities for a religious encounter. “One's table resembles an altar, our meals a sacrifice.” Our need for food becomes our need for Hashem.
My mother tells of her grandfather, a Vishnitzer (sect of Chassidim) Chassid, who hosted Seudat Shlishit (the third and last meal of Shabbat) in his home. She remembers the delicious food and the wonderful singing. In fact, she remembers the gypsy neighbors assembling at the windows to listen to the singing of the last of the Shabbat songs and melodies. To hear the pride in her voice when she recalls the tradition that instructs the family of the pious to make their coffins out of their dining room tables. What better possession to accompany us to the True World than the instrument of hospitality to strangers, of sweet Shabbat melodies, of the celebration of our holy seasons, the very place and platform upon which words of Torah and blessings were offered over tea and cake?
Moses perceived that standing in the presence of Hashem was a celebration and called for a feast. The reverse is also true: mealtime is an opportunity to stand before Hashem.
We acknowledge Hashem's presence in our lives daily by praising Hashem in all that we do, including eating and drinking. And that may be the connection between the seemingly dry legal code that forms the bulk of this Torah reading and its dramatic conclusion. Maybe it is precisely by incorporating the dry injunctions of Mishpatim that we, too, can behold Hashem. It is the fusion of law and lore, knowledge and Nosh, learning and lesiure, that provides for the meat of our survival.
May our tables forever be our altars and may our offerings bring us nourishment of body and soul.
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
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