5776 Kol Nidrei Sermon – WHAT DO WE HUNGER FOR?

A book came out this year by Mark Schatzker called The Dorito Effect.  In it, he describes how the giants of the food industry and commercial agriculture have conspired to construct our hunger. They did not develop as a deliberate partnership but these two industries, working side-by-side, have radically changed the ways we crave, taste, and eat our food. It might be mean of me to talk about food on Yom Kippur, but the hardiest and meatiest questions we’re exploring this year – of what we hunger for and what nourishes us – can be fed by examining our actual relationship to eating.

On one side of the equation is the birth of the Dorito in 1964.  Schatzker explains that with the development of artificial flavouring, food companies gained the capacity to make one thing that tasted like something else.  Suddenly, a simple corn chip could be flavoured to taste like nacho cheese, an entire taco meal, or hot wings dipped in Ranch dressing.  Chemistry has enabled our taste buds to be titillated by an orange powder, generating an amplified, addictive flavour revolution.  Foods could now manufacture a new degree of craving and satisfy it while offering none of the nutritional value of the real foods they are imitating and exaggerating.  Add to this recipe the steady rise of sugar, fat, and salt in all of our processed foods and you have mouths that are happy and bellies that are full while our bodies become obese, diseased, and nutritionally starved.

On a parallel track, beginning after World War II genetic engineering and new technologies were being developed in the worlds of agriculture and meat and poultry farming.  They succeeded in manipulating breeding, animal feed, fertilization, and irrigation in order to exponentially grow the quantity and size of our produce and animals.  Our food is grown faster, bigger, plumper, prettier, and in greater amounts than ever before while it is simultaneously sapped of nutrients and drained of its taste.  A chicken today is grown to full size in less that half the time it took in 1948 and it weighs a pound and a half more than it use to.  Its legs are so short and plump that it waddles rather than walks and its breast is so thick and broad, it can’t stand straight.  And, compared to the flavour of its earlier ancestor, its taste is a far cry from the taste of chicken (Schatzker, p.25).  Wholesome fruits and vegetables are also losing their nutrients as well as their taste.  A tomato can look perfectly red, round, and plump but taste mostly like water.  Generally speaking, compared to 1950s fruits and vegetables, the calcium in our produce is down 19 percent, iron is down by 22 percent, vitamin A has dropped by 20 percent.  The micro nutrients that are essential for human life are steadily diminishing.

It is essential to recognize that this explosion in productivity is thought to have saved more than a billion people from starving to death (Schatzker, p.29).  These advances are addressing real hunger and poverty.  But the dark side of this green revolution is the impoverishment of the food itself and the depletion of the earth in which it is grown.  This is not sustainable.  The very foods that should nourish us all are anemic when it comes to nutrients and flavour, and the foods we have come to crave for their exciting flavour are about as nutritious as chewing on cardboard with a good schmear of fat.  We have distorted our taste buds with “cheap calories and egregious flavour lies,” (Schatzker, p.17) and we have warped our relationship with the fuel our bodies need.

Stunning, isn’t it?  This phenomenon alone could be the subject of an entire talk, but for our learning and our Yom Kippur reflection it stirs a wider examination of our cravings and sustenance.  When do you reach for things that don’t nourish you, that you probably know are even harmful?  When do you consume something to make yourself feel better, even if you will feel worse afterward?  Why are we so often unexcited by the things we know will nourish us most?

As you can imagine, Judaism has a lot to teach about food, with eating being a cultural pastime and, in some homes, a competitive sport.  Jewish sources have some particularly potent things to say about the nature of our cravings and the differences between healthy hunger and its satisfaction and cravings gone awry.

The Book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar, has us meet the Israelites in the wilderness two years after their liberation from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai. You may not have noticed this, but the Israelites remained camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai for two years.  All this time, they haven’t been wandering, they haven’t been moving toward the Promised Land.  They have been camped in one place.  Finally, on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, they are called to set out on the next leg of their journey.  They travel for three days from the wilderness of Sinai to the wilderness of Paran and set up camp again.  And the moment they stop traveling, the moment they settle into making camp again, the people begin to complain and the people begin to crave.

Chapter Eleven tells us “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving – hit’a’vu ta’ava – and then the Israelites turned and wept saying, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now nafsheynu yevesha – our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4-6).

Hit’a’vu ta’ava – they craved a gluttonous craving.  Two years earlier when the Israelites first left Egypt, they had similarly complained for food, sparked by their fear that they would die in the desert.  At that point, it was a legitimate fear and, in response, God began to rain down manna every day – genuine hunger being fed.  But now, two years later, there is no threat of starvation.  There has been no manna shortage and the narrative is clear that the Israelites had cattle and sheep that they could slaughter if they really needed meat.  There was no lack of food, but they craved a craving.

With compassion and discomfort, I am reminded of my teenage self, regularly overwhelmed by feelings, socially awkward, and often uneasy, staring into a fridge stocked with food and yelling, “There is nothing to eat here!”  And if we’re being honest with one another, most of us have those moments in some form as adults too – hungry and craving, desperate, and at a loss.

To understand the nature of this craving, and the nature of our own cravings, we need to look more closely at the nature of the manna – the manna that was the very embodiment of nourishment. In the narrative of the Torah, manna fell wondrously from heaven every day.  A dew covered the ground and when the dew lifted, there remained a fine, flakey substance.  The people could grind it, bake it, or boil it. In the Book of Exodus, it’s described as tasting like wafers in honey.  In the Book of Numbers, it’s described as tasting like rich cream.  As the rabbis of the Talmud later imagined it, the miraculous manna tasted like anything the Israelites desired (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 75b). Long before the Dorito, there was manna and it could take on the flavour of anything that one imagined.  What a potent image – they each imagined what would nourish them that day and they tasted it.

But unlike Doritos, the manna was life-sustaining, feeding the Israelites for forty years.  Its nourishment, however, lies not only in the substance of the food itself but in the whole experience of how it was received and gathered.

Every morning the manna fell and every morning the Israelites went out to gather it.  Miraculously, whoever gathered too much had no excess and whoever gathered too little had no deficiency.  The manna swelled or shrank to fit each person’s needs.  Not their wants, but their needs.  If someone tried to hoard more than they needed, it rotted, stank, and filled with maggots – Torah has such great literary flair.  In addition, there was no gathering on Shabbat, so on the sixth day, everyone gathered a double portion.  What they gathered and kept for Shabbat did not rot, but sustained the people through a day of complete rest.

Each and every day, the people received what they needed.  God did God’s part, they did their part, and they were fed.  Once a week, they had a break from labour and they rested and were cared for.  Each day of their life in the desert was an education in noticing they had enough – each individual having enough and the whole of the community having enough.  An over-eater couldn’t indulge.  A hoarder couldn’t hoard.  Anyone living in distrust or insecurity that the manna would fall tomorrow had no choice but to learn to trust that it would because they couldn’t effectively do anything that would give them the control they were anxious for.  Even if people’s greed, self-interest, or compulsion surfaced, their efforts to act on these fears were miraculously thwarted.  They didn’t cause the damage they do in our world. This is the ideal image of a society being nourished.

Learning from this ideal, can we imagine what it would be like if we turned a clear and discerning eye on our wanting, our greed, and our compulsions and didn’t allow them to run amuck?  What would that do to our concrete eating habits and to our broader ways of relating to the nourishment we more deeply yearn for?  Can we imagine if we developed a relationship with our food and with our picture of nourishment that was always aware of being part of a community of eaters, interconnected, and that true sustenance requires that everyone is fed, literally and figuratively?

We don’t have a Divine hand intervening when we take more than we need, when we over-indulge or starve ourselves, when we waste, when we sever the relationship between what we take for ourselves and what others have or don’t have.  But the vision the Torah offers us is a learning process – the immature Israelite slaves slowly internalizing the understanding that sacred and balanced nourishment requires restraint paired with mindful satisfaction, humility alongside pleasure, and a commitment to collective well-bring.

Another key element that makes the manna a rather delicious symbol of nourishment is that it is not just about food, but it’s also about relationship.  The God of the Torah who performs miracles could have fed the Israelites by any supernatural means.  God could have just made them feel full for forty years, or sprouted the desert with fruit trees and vegetable patches, but the writers of the Torah chose an image of daily relationship. Every day, eating is an encounter with wonder.  Each gathering of manna offers regular and intimate contact with the Divine, with the very Source of sustenance.  It is a constant reminder to the Israelites that they didn’t invent the food that keeps them alive.

Our Sages likened it to the image of a woman breastfeeding an infant. In fact, the Talmudic Rabbi Avo asserts that the manna tasted like breast milk (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 75b).  A nursing baby is not only being fed, but the intimacy, affection, and bonding that come with breastfeeding, are essential for the baby’s emotional nourishment and growth as well.  This way of feeding the Israelites was designed to create a deep bond with the Source of Life.  It is designed to teach them that the gifts of heaven and earth are not merely theirs to use, to manipulate, and to take.  They are beholden to the larger Life they are part of, intimately connected with it, and calling them toward gratitude.  What would change in our relationships with farmers, with the earth, with the depth of appreciation, and with the Source of Life if, every time we sat down to eat, we marked a trail of gratitude back to our food’s wondrous source?

It is not surprising that the Israelites’ craving arises just as they have begun this new stage of their journey.  Their sense of security is thrown up in the air.  They start to move, then they’re told to make camp.  They have a vague sense of where they are going but it is strange and unknown.  So they rebel and refuse.  It’s not just that they’re bored with manna for breakfast again – they reject the interdependence and unpredictable, dynamic change that goes along with the manna’s nourishment.  They want control.  They want stability.  They would rather go back to Egypt, to narrowness and constraint, than trust life’s unpredictable unfolding.  Doritos don’t yet come in the flavour of stability or control, but that is what they want.  “If only we had meat to eat!”  Their craving is charged with despair and they weep.  They say – “nafsheynu yevesha” – which can either mean “our gullets are shriveled” or “our souls are parched”.  Their ache comes right from their core.  They don’t want it to be so hard.  They are tired of all these frustrating growth experiences.  I know this feeling.  Maybe you know this feeling.  It is hard work.  They would rather sink their teeth into something raw and primal, earthy and concrete, something as finite and bloody as death.  The don’t want nourishment.  They want Doritos!  They want meat!

Oh, it is so hard to be human. It is so hard to be an adult – to take responsibility for our fears and anxieties; to be present with our feelings of emptiness, discomfort, and lack of control; to keenly, lovingly observe the pulls of our unhealthy hungers but to decide not to feed them.  Becoming more aware and wise in our relationship with craving and consuming is not just a personal matter.  It has global ramifications.  The psychological and the ethical meet here. Consumerism and capitalism and systemic poverty meet here.  Our inner work and our outer work are inseparable.

What we do with our hunger and craving has a direct impact on the clear cutting of rain forests, dumping waste into our water systems; and climate change that effects people living in the poorest countries with the least resources.  How we think about nourishment will have everything to do with sharing our resources equitably, choosing to live more simply; and sustaining an earth that can sustain all its inhabitants.  We have a vision of nourishment that embraces the whole of Life, honouring it, caring for everyone in it, and tasting the sweet pleasure of enough.

We are invited to feast on manna together this year, to sit at the table with new awareness and widening trust, with our imaginations reaching toward the deepest, soul-filling nourishment and with the joyful swell of gratitude for all that we are blessed with.

Shana tova.

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