Manna, pheasant punishment and too much food

This guest post was first given as a dvar torah at Shir HaMaalot, Crown Heights’ first trad-egal havurah, by Brandon Bernstein on Friday, June 8, 2012. Shir HaMaalot meets next this Friday, July 13 at Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, at 7 pm.
Brandon is a 4th-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in New York who spends his free time reading and taking improv classes in a vain attempt to be well-rounded.
I’d like to start tonight by turning to a source of perennial wisdom in my life – the Simpsons.
There’s a Halloween special of the Simpsons in which Homer sells his soul for a donut.  And after eating this forbidden donut, Homer winds up down in hell, tortured by a demon in the Ironic Punishments division.  The demon torturing him says, “So, you like donuts, do you?!  Have all the donuts in the world!” and then proceeds to force feed him, two at a time, all the donuts in the world.  The scene cuts forward to days later, a very pudgy Homer is finishing up the last donuts, the demon is completely baffled, and Homer just says, “More please.”
So…what’s this have to do with our Torah portion?  Well, this week is Beha’a lotcha.  In Numbers 11, the Israelites are complaining (what else is new?), reminiscing about all the good, tasty eats they had back in Egypt instead of this plain, oily manna that’s the same thing.  Every.  Single.  Day.  They miss meat – בָּשָׂר (basar) — flesh.  So they whine to Moses, and Moses whines to God, and God…well, God gets spiteful.
Basically, God says, “You want meat?  Oh, I’ll give you meat.  Not just for one day, not just for two days, or ten or twenty days, but I’ll give you 30 days – a whole MONTH – of non-stop, all you can eat meat עַד אֲשֶׁר-יֵצֵא מֵאַפְּכֶם, וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְזָרָא – until it comes out of your nose and is sickening to you (Numbers 11:20).  Take that, you whiny Israelites.”
So God summons this wind and essentially makes it rain pheasants; and everybody’s collecting all the pheasants they can grab; and they’re all so happy and excited and can’t wait – yay!; and they eat it and then they die of a plague.
This blows my mind.  First of all…the Israelites didn’t just eat manna?  They had pheasants?  I’m in shock.  This is the closest I’ll ever come in my life  to finding out there is no Santa Clause.
Secondly, for me, this seems counter-intuitive.  You want to punish the people when it comes to food, you make them starve.  But no!  That’s not what happens.  Instead, too much food becomes a bad thing.  Too much food becomes a punishment.
It makes a certain degree of sense.  Sforno, an Italian bible commentator from the 16th century, puts it this way: the Israelites are going to keep eating meat until it causes them nausea…until they get sick.
Well hey – science agrees!  We know that overeating can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, ten whole plagues of nutrition.  The rabbis also knew this.  In the Talmud, in Tractate Gittin 70a, the prophet Elijah pops by to give some advice to Rabbi Nathan: “Fill a 3rd of your stomach with food, a 3rd with drink, and leave a 3rd empty. Otherwise, when you get angry, the anger will pack your stomach so full, you’ll burst!”
The language is a bit eccentric, but I’d say that makes sense with our lives today.  Eating healthy, eating right, eating smaller portions – seems to be the hot button issue of the day.  Mayor Bloomberg is trying to ban sugary sodas from NY.  The parents in Park Slope are protesting the sale of ice cream to their kids in the park.  And just this week, Disney announced that it would no longer market junk food to kids, instituting a “Mickey Check” to endorse the foods it does find nutritious enough for kids and following up years of Walt’s alleged anti-semitism by creating the Disney version of what sounds like a heksher.
But there’s a problem.  Even if we ban soda in NY, even if we keep ice cream out of our parks, even if we don’t get a Buzz Lightyear figure in our Happy Meals anymore…well, the abundance of food still exists.  It’s still out there.  Truth be told, this week’s parsha?  Same problem.
See, even though God makes it rain pheasant to last a month, well, the Israelites don’t die of disgorged stomachs after thirty days of binging.  No, they die, הַבָּשָׂר, עוֹדֶנּוּ בֵּין שִׁנֵּיהֶם  (habasar odeinu bein shineyhem) (Numbers 11:33) – while the meat is still between their teeth.  They die immediately, and a month’s worth of meat remains.
Too much food is a punishment.  It was then; it is now.  I realize it’s a little out of vogue talking about contemporary issues from more than a month ago, but what the hell, let’s live a little.  When it comes to the problem of surplus food, and the disproportionate distribution of that food, no example works better in my mind than post-earthquake Haiti and the worldwide relief efforts.
I’ll never forget last year when one of my classmates dropped a little knowledge bomb on me: the US, in a move fully motivated by good intentions, decided to aid in relief efforts by sending 900,000 metric tons of crops.  Crops like rice.  Crops that arrived right at the same time as the Haitian rice harvest.  Which means all those farmers who had worked all season long harvesting their crops…brought their wares to a market flooded with competition.  The working class was unable to earn their keep.
Too much food…is a punishment.  It’s not just an issue overeating or malnutrition.  It’s about resources, about space.  Too much food is not a good thing.
Tonight, after services, we’re going to join together for communal Shabbat dinner.  After eating, you’ll be invited to recite birkat hamazon, the blessing after meals.  The second part of the blessing quotes a line from Deuteronomy 8:10: “ וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת יי אֱלֹהֶיךָ (v’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai eloheicha).”  Perhaps herein lays the key.
What would happen if the Israelites didn’t complain for more food, but actually appreciated what they had?  What would happen if we gave thanks for all that we had instead of focusing on those things we still want?
For me, personally, the act of blessing my food is an act of mindfulness.  An act of appreciation.  And if I’m not quite satiated, I say the blessing anyway.  After all, if I’m really that hungry, I can always say, “more please.”

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