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When Do We Eat?: Eating to Live On Passover Night

March 19, 2018 | by Yaakov Astor

Delayed gratification transforms the physical into an act of spiritual sustenance.

“Dad, when can we eat already?”

The question is so commonly asked during the Seder that it deserves a fifth “Mah Nishtanah” question: “Why is this night different than all other nights? On all other nights, we dig right into the meal and eat. But on this night, we have to learn about the Haggadah before we eat.”

Something I heard 35 years ago from Rav Noah Weinberg, zt”l serves as a good answer to the question.

Rav Noah asked our group: “Are you living to eat or eating to live?”

We all answered, “Eating to live.” We eat because we need energy and nutrients. It is not an end unto itself. We don’t live to eat.

But in a world of such unprecedented material abundance it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we don’t live to eat, that we don’t live to shop, that we aren’t here to increase the Consumer Price Index.

We live in a world of instant gratification. We see, we click, we buy, we feel happy… for a moment. Then the walls of emptiness start caving in so we crave for more and we see, we click, we buy. And the cycle continues ad infinitum… until something happens and we realize how empty we feel.

We need a sense of purpose, something beyond eating, consuming and clicking.

The Torah tells us: “Man does not live by bread along, but by the word of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3). We are not merely material beings in a material world. Our bodies need bread, but our souls need spiritual sustenance.

So when your child asks you, “Why can’t we eat now?” frame your answer as a question: “What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? Are we living to eat or are we eating to live?”

Open the floor to conversation. What are we doing here? Where are we going? What is life all about?

Now Eat

Judaism does not ascribe to asceticism. It does not espouse climbing the Himalayas, finding a cave, crossing your legs and meditating on your navel for the rest of your life.

Our Sabbath, the holiest day, is spent with family around a table, eating and drinking. Special delicious foods are prepared using our finest silverware. We sanctify the Sabbath over a glass of wine. Even the holiest of the holiest Jewish sages marry and enjoy an incredibly rich family life.

In Judaism, the physical is not a concession. It’s not a sin to be tolerated in an imperfect world. It’s a unique, unprecedented potential not only for goodness but for holiness.

It’s easy to fool ourselves and say we are enjoying this gourmet meal and fine wine to be holy when we are really just satisfying our taste buds and filling our stomachs. It’s easy to say we are eating to live when we are really living to eat.

How can we know we are not fooling ourselves?

The most basic way is by delaying gratification. (The emphasis is on delaying, not eliminating.)

We delay fulfilling our bodily needs and take care of our soul’s needs first.

One of the ways we do so as Jews is by delaying the main meal on Passover night, the night we became a people, setting the tone for the rest of the year.

On this night we behave differently than any other night. We delay fulfilling our bodily needs and take care of our soul’s needs first. Doing so, we prove that we are eating to live, that we have a higher purpose, that we are not just temporal creatures.

After we establish that, we can sit down to a hearty, scrumptious meal knowing that enjoying it is not an end to itself, but a path to living a purposeful life.

The Afikomen

In Temple times, the last thing we ate after the Seder was the “paschal lamb” – a portion of roasted lamb. In the absence of the Temple, we eat a piece of matzah, the Afikoman.

The idea is that after eating a delicious meal, we return to the awareness that we are eating to live. We had that in mind at the beginning when we delayed gratification by reviewing the story of our people before indulging our taste buds. Then we ate and drank. And ate some more. And it’s a mitzvah to enjoy it. Even so, we must always remember that eating is not the end. The “end” is spiritual; a mitzvah – the paschal lamb or its substitute, the Afikomen.

Everything we do should be for the sake of a higher purpose. It’s the only way to raise ourselves out of the cycle of emptiness called living to eat.

Passover is a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves and teach our children that life has a purpose. A person can only fill the gnawing emptiness of materialism with the reality that “Man does not live by bread alone.” We are more than our bodies. We are creatures made in the Divine Image. We are souls nourished by “the word of God.”

Stir your children’s minds. Ask questions. Make the Seder real. What are we doing here? Who are we? Who is God? Who are the Jewish people? What is our special relationship to God? What is our history and what is our destiny?

Those are nutrients for the soul. Transform the Seder from an obstacle delaying the consumption of a physical meal into a spiritual banquet the entire family will remember long after the calories are burned up. The night will become a memory stamped permanently on the soul of everyone in attendance for the rest of their lives.


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