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Living to Eat

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

What should food mean to us?

A close friend was recently diagnosed with an extensive range of food allergies, the kind that leave you wondering, "What's left?"

Exuding concern and sympathy, my husband said to her, "Well, are you eating to live or living to eat?" Reserving judgment on my husband's powers of empathy, it is a question worth considering.

Even though I'm an avid subscriber to cooking magazines, I draw the line at those "foodies" who define their life's goal as the search for the perfect meatball. Certainly the proliferation of available gourmet and exotic items and the popularity of Food TV suggest that we are not just eating to live.

Yet few of us would claim that we are living to eat. In fact many of us seem to be living to diet (and then eat!).

The question, which may at some later point provide comfort to our newly allergic friend, remains central to how we choose to live our lives. It raises two issues: the profound question of "If we're not living to eat, what exactly are we living to do?" and the slightly easier (though racked with emotional complexity) dilemma of what does food mean to us?

The Jewish goal is not to lead an ascetic life and leave this bounty untouched. The key is to link it all back to the Source.

The Almighty has filled the world with many different permissible foods of such variety, color, shape and taste as to defy imagination. There are recipes for and arrangements of food that turn it into a beautiful art form. Some cookbooks seem like a tour through a cake museum (especially since most of us will never bake anything resembling those elaborate creations!).

The Jewish goal is not to lead an ascetic life and leave this bounty untouched. The key is to link it all back to the Source.

The master of this technique was our forefather Abraham. Renowned for his hospitality, he would stop all guests along the road and offer them food. The only requirement? To say a blessing afterward thanking the Creator for the wonderful repast.

If we can't all emulate the behavior of Abraham, we can perhaps emulate the behavior of his guests. We can thank the Almighty for the food we eat. We can appreciate the gift it is -- not just for the strength it gives us but for the pleasure as well. We can eat more slowly and savor the taste and richness of our good fortune.

A friend was traveling in a country that grew mangos and the favorite local drink was, naturally, mango juice. On a hot and dusty day he could consume three or four drinks in rapid succession. The first time he did this, he stopped in the middle of the third glass and said, "Hey, this tastes good!" He hadn't even noticed the first two he guzzled down.

If we eat like this, we have missed the opportunity of the moment. We have neither gotten the pure physical pleasure of the taste or the spiritual pleasure of intent. But if we say a blessing and sip slowly, if we marvel over the vibrant yellow color of the drink and the cool refreshing nectar of the fruit (maybe there's a job for me at one of those food magazines!), if we appreciate the treat God has given us, then we are elevating the food and giving it meaning as a tool in deepening our gratitude and love for our Creator.

And we are getting a glimpse into the answer to that deeper question of the purpose of our lives... the search for the perfect chocolate chip cookie?


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