The nature of the food which a person eats will give rise to a similar temperament within him. — The Aleph-Bet Book
A haughty person cannot comprehend God’s sovereignty over everything. — The Aleph-Bet Book
Not performing acts of kindness causes you to lack true knowledge. — The Aleph-Bet Book
In The Aleph-Bet Book, in the chapter called True Knowledge, there are dozens of aphorisms, seemingly unconnected. But, as with all Rebbe Nachman’s works, if you take time to review and ponder the lessons, different levels of understanding, even mind maps, are revealed.
Last evening, I was thinking about the progressively glossier kosher food publications (online and off), which are beginning to rival glossies in the “food world” at large. More Woman’s Day than Saveur, to be sure. After all, they’re playing catch-up and the dedication and sheer amount of time necessary to cultivating and exhibiting sophisticated tastes isn’t particularly a quality of Jewish spiritual-religious life. (We’re really busy people.)
(You can just scroll down for the bean soup recipe if you prefer.)
But, by raising the bar over and over again, I’m sorry to say that we may be moving into a realm of sophistication (with all its definitions), that is distinctly foreign to the ideals of Judaism. We’re told to enjoy and delight in the wholesome beauties and pleasures of this world, after all they are gifts from God, but we’re also told to not let these pleasures take over our consciousness. We’re put here to do something greater than just take and revel.
How does this tie in with Rebbe Nachman’s teachings related to true knowledge? Let’s start with the nature of the food we eat. In Tiger, I gave an example of how your food literally becomes you—your bones and muscles, cells and molecules. But it goes deeper than that. What our bodies absorb, whether through our eyes, ear or mouth (even surgery), affects who we are. We become what we choose to consume.
We’ve all heard stories of people who received heart transplants and woke up to find they had taken on at least some of the characteristics of their heart donor. A few years ago, for example, there was a woman who, after receiving a heart from a young man, began craving beer and fried chicken, apparently his favorites. We also know that despite the arguments of doctors, many children do appear to be agitated or hyper after eating sugary desserts, and that if we overeat at one sitting, we feel sluggish, unmotivated, even sleepy.
Although we’re taught that Biblical laws of eating kosher are not based on logic (nor are they meant to be), hunting animals or birds of prey are not on the permitted eating list. Kosher animals are gentle animals that generally play well with others. When a kosher animal is slaughtered, the blood, which contains the life force, is covered up. To be kosher, an animal must also be killed swiftly and painlessly. Interestingly, terrified animals or ones who die in pain, flood their bodies with adrenaline, one of the main hormones that cause aggression. Whatever chemicals we take in affects our bodies and brains. They also affect our very essence, our middos, our personal values and characteristics. The laws of eating kosher are about the spiritual source of the food we take in.
For example, the Jewish mystics say eating insects cause depression because insects are rooted in the dark spiritual source of hopelessness. Insects wear their skeletons on the outside, they’re soft and squishy on the inside, where strength and the ability to stand up to life’s challenges really count.
Mind if I extrapolate? I had this discussion with someone years ago: Shellfish isn’t kosher either. Take a clam. Clams open up only in order to eat. Then they snap shut again. They don’t give, they only take. In a charming synchronicity, shellfish rhymes with selfish. Shellfish too, wear their skeletons on the outside. Shellfish are essentially bugs of the sea.
Many of the mystics (they appear ascetic by the standards of the average person), only ate chicken or meat on Shabbos (Shabbat) or non-fasting Holy-days. Try doing a modified version of this, avoid flesh foods and desserts during the week—you’ll really enjoy your Shabbos meal so much more.
So we know there are laws (and benefits), to adhering to the kosher specifics of what we’re allowed to eat. But, there are also laws exhorting us not to overeat, not to be gluttonous. At some point, glossy food photos (which, when well-done, I enjoy as much as the next person), cultivate Epicureanism, which leads very quickly to gluttony, albeit gluttony dressed up as sophistication. ∞Rebbe Nachman warns us about philosophers, to which group of this-world, anti-spiritual beings Epicurus belongs. The Rebbe famously laughed, “If they would allow one dead soul to visit an assembly of philosophers, that would be the end of all their teachings.”(Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom)
Rebbe Nachman also tells us about the power of the imagination—maybe he was the first to clearly reveal that what we think about creates our reality. This is different from “magical thinking” and far more pervasive and powerful. If we’re focused more than necessary on food, we become food heads. And food bodies, too. (Which puts me in the interesting position of reflecting on why I write about food so often.)
Increasingly varied menus designed to titillate more and more jaded palates end up cultivating cravings. Our interior climates change so that we no longer know if what we’re eating is really good for us. If we’re constantly raising the novelty and taste-bar, spending a lot of time polishing and refining our material tastes rather than spiritual tastes, *desire is fueled.
If the nature of the food you eat is always “only the best will do” and you must constantly be tempted in order to eat, it becomes second-nature to you to expect your tastes to be catered to and to have your senses constantly delighted. To be sure, Rebbe Nachman says that delighting in your food on Shabbos (and presumably Holy-days), is actually a higher atonement than fasting. But if we read that as tacit permission to indulge our tastes at all times, we end up making it impossible to be satisfied with less.
I love the story The Princess and The Pea. It can be used to positively describe the exalted state of the soul or to negatively illustrate how by pampering ourselves, we can’t tolerate the least discomfort. When that happens, we forget about, or don’t recognize, that God has sovereignty over everything. We want what we want when we want it, and we aren’t able to connect with the idea that God says that sometimes, perhaps even often, what we want isn’t good for our souls or bodies. This leads to a sense of entitlement which goes hand in glove with haughtiness.
A haughty, entitled person is generally incapable of being kind because he is always worried about his own desires, needs, comfort-level, honor. Sure, he’s occasionally capable of doing acts that appear kind, especially when the act also benefits him—but his motivation isn’t kindness and the act is hollow. Can a kind act be called truly kind if the motivation is purely selfish?
What happens when you begin to live to pamper yourself, becoming haughty and entitled, and have less and less interest in performing kind acts? You’ve put your lowest self, the self of urges and desires, at the center of your world and have created a thick., insulating blanket between yourself and true knowledge. (Not to mention creating a wall between you and other people and you and God.) True knowledge needs space to grow, it’s delicate at first, though usually hardy after it’s rooted and blossomed.
I’d say in each of us the insulating blanket is of varying thickness, depending on the quality and strength of our narcissism (which most of us have to at least some extent.) True knowledge is spiritual food for a rich life and beyond. If you’re filled up with the desire-aspect of your self, if you spend a lifetime cultivating this desire, you’ve got little room inside or time left for true knowledge.
What’s the opposite of the Rebbe’s teachings? Perhaps the jocular saying based on the Biblical description (Isaiah 22:14) of those who had little chance of redemption: Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you shall die.
The Torah teaches that tomorrow we do live, in this world or beyond. How do we want to define our life? In the strictest sense, we could conceivably be kosher epicures, but to reach our full spiritual potential we try to live with both the letter and the spirit of the Torah.
A Simple Weekday Recipe
HJC’s Bean Soup (or Stew)
16-18 oz. dried beans, any variety (I used all the leftover 1/4 bags of beans I had hanging around which included cranberry, navy, lima, Peruvian yellow beans, de puy lentils, small red beans, and a handful of split peas)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil or safflower oil
1 large or 2 medium onions, peeled and diced
1 large leek, washed, and roughly chopped
1 small celery root, washed, peeled, and diced
2 large carrots, scrubbed and sliced
2 small turnips, washed, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon each, optional: dried thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram
1/2 teaspoon each ground coriander, cumin and chili powder (optional)
1 tablespoon shoyu or Braggs liquid aminos
1 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
unrefined sea salt, pepper
Check and wash beans, rinse well in a couple changes of water. In the photo you’ll see some of the rocks I found in this batch. I also found a bean with a hole right through its middle, clearly eaten by a worm. Generally, if you buy decent-quality beans, such as Goya, this won’t occur, but I bought an “off-brand” of a few varieties of bagged beans and they were filled with rocks and worm holes. Soak beans overnight for up to 16 hours, changing water after 6-8 hours. Drain and rinse beans. This will start the sprouting process and make beans more digestible. Lentils, split peas and lima beans do not need a long soaking time.
Saute vegetables in olive oil (you can add a spoonful of water if the vegetables stick), except for garlic. If you want more of a stew than a soup, cut vegetables larger. When they have slightly caramelized, add garlic, herbs, and spices. Although in some cases it is best to add herbs and spices a bit later in the cooking process, I think the flavors meld better if you start out this way for a hearty soup.
Stir in beans, add enough water to cover by a couple of inches, and simmer over medium heat until beans are tender. If you’ve soaked them a long time, this might take far less than time than you think, as little as 30 minutes.
Add shoyu and vinegar, salt, and pepper, stir and simmer for another ten minutes. Taste and correct seasonings and serve immediately in homey bowls with sprouted bread, or cool and refrigerate. This will keep up to 5 days in your refrigerator.
Once a week I make a large pot of some kind of vegetarian soup to serve at the Breslov class we host in our home,. Leftovers make a quick meal for another night. (I usually have to build-in leftovers if I want them.)
∞Although even a cursory read of Epicurus will show that he actually emphasized what he, as one of the leading lights of the Greeks, called the higher “spiritual” pleasures, that is, aesthetic and intellectual pleasures, these are still in contradiction to Jewish values. Aestheticism is no different, it’s food for the eyes (or ears). And as an end of itself, many Jewish sages harshly criticized even the greatest Torah scholar if he put scholarship or intellectual prowess before performing acts of loving-kindness and good deeds. In fact, the Hasidic movement, which was founded by Rebbe Nachman’s great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, was actually a radical revival of an appreciation for people of simple faith and good deeds; its intellectual tradition is viewed as only a means to awaken and achieve that pure faith.
Note: There is an alluring logic to the philosophers. Their teachings are like a fascinating, swaying cobra—hypnotic, but deadly to the soul, which is why our sages say not to study them.
*There has to be a balance. Eating wholesome, lovingly prepared foods, celebratory or not, those that remind us of loving family, and offer spiritual delight is different from eating an enormous variety of unhealthy foods designed to overly appeal to our visual sense (which fuels the imagination) and which give our taste-buds constant sensation, such as very sweet or salty foods. There’s a base term in common usage, “food porn,” which accurately describes the whole phenomenon of constantly being exposed to food photos, each more gorgeous than the next. The line between good taste and craven taste is constantly being crossed.
What actually prompted me to write this blog post were two different Jewish magazines a neighbor shared with me. One contained a recipe section with “easy, every-day” dinners with each recipe containing sugar or honey or an ingredient containing sugar (ketchup and duck sauce.) The other, a pull-out food magazine with each shot so over-styled that the total effect was numbing.