When I was growing up, many images would come to my mind when someone brought up the subject of Judaism. Almost all of them had something to do with food.
Whether it was contemplating the advent of the Passover Seder -- the feast of freedom (with heavy emphasis on feast), or Rosh Hashanah (one long stretch of eating with a few intervals), my mind would swirl with a steaming potpourri of gastric blends, until I was utterly convinced that Judaism was all about food, or the art of preparing it, or of making others consume it.
Even on the fast of Yom Kippur (at that stage, I had not even heard of fast days like Tisha B'Av, let alone the Tenth of Tevet or Tzom Gedalia), my primary goal was to see how long I could last before breaking the fast that night at a relative's house on… you guessed it, food.
Each year we would leap into the heap with abandon, ending up bloated after devouring the double-thick cake.
And there were mountains of it. Each year we would summarily ignore the previous year's memory of ending up bloated and nauseated after devouring every type of double-thick cake and crepe suzette that the table could proffer, all on a shrunken stomach. Each year we would leap into the heap with abandon, figuring that this time we would not feel bloated, if there was any figuring going on at all.
And each year we would roll out of the relative's house with a noxious pounding in our abdomens, only to return the next year awaiting our break-the-Yom-Kippur-fast with breathless anticipation.
And if you should think that things have changed, well, just ask any Bar Mitzvah caterer, or your average Jewish mother, whether or not food has stepped down a notch from its prime spot on the hierarchy of Jewish values. They are likely to respond with a resounding, "Are you kidding?!"
If anyone were brazen enough to challenge this stream of Gastronomic Judaism, the response would probably be, "That's an interesting point. Let's discuss it over a bagel and coffee."
Perhaps some clues to this culinary conundrum could be found by scrutinizing the food itself, by carefully picking apart (in the figurative sense) the matzah ball as it bobs up and down in your bowl of chicken soup. On most occasions, the matzah ball will not deliver any particular surprises, duly serving its function as a pleasant-tasting orb of boiled matzah meal.
Sometimes the fluffy matzah ball can extend beyond the food itself.
Sometimes, though, on special occasions, the fluffy matzah ball, together with the steaming soup, the glowing candlelight and the clatter of cutlery, can produce something that seems to extend beyond the food itself, adding up to more than the sum of its parts, transforming the meal into something of, dare we say... a spiritual experience.
Now this concept must be clarified. When speaking of a spiritual eating experience, we do not refer to the sensationally stylish ambience pervading the interior of an exclusive restaurant, which caters to every culinary connoisseur. No, that is merely a magnification of the physical, inflating it with every sensory delight until it inhabits the very air we breathe.
What, then, does constitute a spiritual eating experience? The answer is as simple as it is profound: The difference between meaningful eating, and eating as an end in itself. When we eat for the sake of eating, we limit the experience to exactly that -- a systematic digestive procedure that, at the most, tantalizes the taste buds for a moment or two, and then disappears.
Animals, it seems, have a similar experience. They eat, and are satisfied.
On the other hand, the Torah (Deut. 8:10) instructs us, "You shall eat, you shall be satisfied…"
"…and then you shall bless."
That's the clincher. When we acknowledge the Source of the food we've eaten, then the seemingly mundane eating process becomes a sublimely meaningful one, elevating the physical molecules on your plate to an exalted status.
And that is how the matzah ball can mingle with the steaming soup and clatter of the cutlery, to become a truly spiritual dumpling delicacy.
This brings to mind an everyday conversation of a great rabbi that, upon close inspection, reveals tremendous depths of intention and outlook.
Rabbi Aaron of Karlin was once sitting with some students, when he picked up an apple, fervently recited the appropriate blessing, and then proceeded to eat the apple.
One of the students took the occasion to follow suit. He also recited a blessing, and ate an apple.
I took an apple in order to obligate me in a blessing, providing my opportunity to praise God.
The rabbi realized there was an important lesson to impart, so he turned to the student and said: "You probably think we both just did the same act. But in fact there's a big difference. As I was sitting here, inspired by the beauty and wonder of God's creation, I desired to praise Him. But since it is forbidden to take God's Name in vain, I took an apple in order to obligate me in a blessing, providing my opportunity to praise God.
"But," the rabbi gently explained, "you were hungry and desired an apple. So you first said a blessing.
"The difference," the rabbi concluded, "is that you said the blessing in order to eat, while I ate in order to say the blessing."
Life is not simply about "grabbing a bite to eat." It is the blessing that we are eating for.
And if you want to master the quest for spiritual elevation while eating, try seasoning your meal with one more sacred precept:
When we inject words of Torah into the dinner conversation, we soar beyond the earthly realms, carrying the table with us. The Talmud testifies:
Three people who have eaten together and spoken words of Torah, is as if they have eaten from the table of God.
Now that's really something to digest!
So remember: The matzah ball that stares up at your longing eyes while the Haggadah is being read, can be zapped into a veritable ball of exalted meaning -- depending on how you choose to think about your food.