Someone once said that you can explain almost all of the Jewish holidays with a single sentence: They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat! Okay, it's not really that simple, but there's no doubt that food is an important part of Jewish life.
And it's not only the so-called "Jewish food" of my childhood — chicken soup, brisket, pastrami, kugel, gefilte fish. Today, we have Chinese, Italian, Indian, French and Middle Eastern food; sushi and barbecue; tacos and pizza; dim sum and pâté de foie gras — all available with kosher supervision.
Jews really do love food, so it's hardly surprising that when Moses speaks to the people who are about to enter the land that God promised and wants to convey to them just how magnificent God's gift is, he speaks of it.
"For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing … "
Think about it — we chafe under the restrictions of eight days of Pesach, and fantasize about pizza and bagels. Just imagine the joy of people who had lived on manna for 40 years when they were told that they would soon be able to eat as much as they wanted of all sorts of fresh and tasty produce.
And then, at the end of this passage, Moses says: V'achalta v'savata u'veirachta et Hashem Elohecha — "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you."
These familiar words are found in the second paragraph of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals. And, in fact, it is from these words that the rabbis derive the obligation to say Birkat Hamazon: first eat your fill and then, after the meal, say this brachah and give thanks to God.
As the story in Sotah has it, Abraham was famous for his hospitality. After travelers whom he invited to be his guests had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him. But Abraham said to them: "Was it of mine that you ate? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the world. Thank, praise and bless Him Who spoke and the world came into being."
In the wilderness, the Israelites could not help but be conscious of who it was who provided their sustenance as they ate manna and drank from the miraculous well that accompanied them on their journeys. But now, things were about to change. Moses charges the people, "Take care lest you forget the Lord your God."
A Gift From God
Be careful that, in the course of normal everyday life, you don't start to believe that your food, your house, your possessions — everything you have — is solely the result of your own efforts and intelligence. For ultimately, everything that is yours is a gift from God, and so the Torah teaches, "when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God."
Food is important — not just because it fuels our bodies, and not just because it is a source of pleasure. It's important because it can be a means to kedushah, or "holiness," when we take time to think about the source of what we eat, and when we allow ourselves to be awakened to consciousness by the brachot we say.
Jews like food. We celebrate Shabbat and Yom Tov with special dishes. We prepare elaborate meals to celebrate weddings and births, and we prepare simple dishes to comfort mourners. The tastes and smells of special foods remind us of those who are no longer with us, and allow us to convey our love to those who are closest to us.
Food even has the power to invoke the presence of God, for a meal can be a religious act, which can call to mind our relationship with the world around us and our dependence on the benevolence of the Source of all nourishment.
So eat, enjoy — and thank, praise and bless the Lord your God for all the gifts you have received!
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a resident of Teaneck, N.J. She was a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.