FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Parshat Terumah marks the beginning of Hashem's detailed instructions to Moses for the construction by the Jewish people of the veritable house of G-d in this world, the Mishkan.
Parshat Terumah marks the beginning of Hashem's detailed instructions to Moses for the construction by the Jewish people of the veritable house of G-d in this world, the Mishkan. In the Mishkan, Hashem's presence would be distinctively felt more than at any other location in the world. Our sages tell us that the Mishkan itself was a microcosm of the physical world and, to a certain extent, paralleled the various facets of the relationship between humanity and its Creator. In the central part of the Mishkan, there were three spiritually magnificent vessels: the menorah (candelabra), the incense altar, and the table of the lechem hapanim (show-bread). All of these items are, in their deeper portent, directly related to the crucial aspects of Hashem's providence in the various facets of human life.
Perhaps the most peculiar of these vessels which, due to its physical nature, seems to stick out the most in this holy area, is the table. While the menorah and incense altar focus more on what are obviously spiritual items - light and smell (a sense which the Talmud describes as being a purely spiritual pleasure, Tractate Berachot 43b) - the table features the basis for humanity's animalistic physical existence, the ultimate staple of life, bread. Why was it necessary to have such a basic physical presence in this holiest of realms? Also, why was the displaying device for the show-bread constructed in the shape of a normal table, so reminiscent of the arena of human feeding? Thirdly, what aspect of Hashem's relationship to the world did the table so fascinatingly represent? Lastly, the lessons of the parts of the Mishkan are significant even for our present generation because they represent the still existing relationships between Hashem and this world. How can we apply the lessons of the table to our post-Mishkan lives?
The Secret to Keeping Bread Fresh
The Talmud (Tractate Chagigah 26) tells us that a great miracle happened to the breads on the table on a weekly basis: Although they remained on the table for seven days, they never became moldy or stale. In fact, they were even eaten by the shift of Kohanim (priests) on duty that week, and were quite delicious. Also, the Talmud tells us that every week, the delectable breads were displayed to the nation of Jews assembled at the Temple as a sign of Hashem's abundant love for them. Why was this sign chosen as the symbol of Hashem's love? Also, why did Hashem choose this miracle, the freshness of the bread, of all the other possible miracles that He could have performed with bread as the distinctive miracle of the table?
The Bais Yaakov, a great Chassidic master, explains that there is a peculiar phenomenon in nature that seems to be universal throughout the growing things of the world. All things that grow remain in a constant state of growth and activity as long as they are attached to the soil of the earth or the vegetative source in which they belong. While attached to terra-firma, a fruit or vegetable will remain fresh, season allowing, and be in the very bloom of health. However, once something is detached from the ground, unless chemically treated, it begins to rot and wither. The fruit has no adaptive method to maintain its state of freshness once removed from its source. Even grains, which will keep for extended periods in storage, once baked into their final form of bread also begin to get moldy. The Bais Yaakov explains that this is a result of the fact that the only true source of life and existence stems from the ultimate source, Hashem. As long as something remains attached to the habitat that Hashem created for it, that item will continue to grow and flourish, in essence, to live.
However, once something is separated from the habitat into which Hashem placed it, that thing has no lasting existence and will proceed to die, because it is detached from Hashem. Even though Hashem's intention is that the fruits He created be enjoyed by earth's inhabitants, and therefore He certainly wants the fruits to be in human hands, Man only complicates matters because he himself severs that food from Hashem. By viewing the food that sprouts from the earth as a product of Man's creation, as fruits that he has etched from the earth by his own hard labor alone, he distances those things from Hashem. Instead of seeing food as a gift from Hashem, Man sees it purely as the product of his labor. Since it becomes separate from Hashem, it is subject to the processes of deterioration, so it subsequently withers and dies.
This concept hits on a more basic understanding of our overall sustenance in general, and has grave implications for the way we must view our physical accomplishments in this world. As long as we realize that our physical successes are really a product of Hashem's kindness through His blessings of health and opportunity, then those physical things will have a continued existence. By admitting that our possessions are really part of Hashem's master plan, we connect those things to Hashem's infinite existence and, hence, those possessions will truly last. However, when one sees his accomplishments as a result of his own physical prowess, he divorces those accomplishments from Hashem, and although they may have a temporary existence, they are unlikely to have any long-lasting endurance because they are separate from Hashem.
This was one of the basic messages of the table in the Mishkan and its constantly fresh breads: By taking the physical and recognizing its spiritual content, by bringing it into the Temple of Hashem, those breads will forever remain fresh and delicious. So too, when we recognize our physical blessings to be a product of Hashem's love for us, how much more delicious and long-lasting those things will become.
A Sacrificial Feast
How does the table relate to our everyday Mishkan-less life? The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 25) tells us that now that the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, we no longer have the altar upon which to bring our sacrifices to atone for our sins and attain a closeness to our Creator. Instead, the Talmud states, we have our physical tables as our modern-day altars upon which we may bring ourselves closer to Hashem, if we sanctify them by the ways in which we use them. It is for this reason that the Torah mentions the Mishkan's table immediately after the altar. How are our stages of repast similar to the altar of the Temple?
The Ahavas Eisan, a commentator in the Aggadic treasury Ein Yaakov, explains as follows: The altar's purpose was to take the physical sacrifices, and through the devotion of Hashem's people and their desire to bring their physical selves closer to His oneness, transform those physical entities into spiritual ones. By burning the physical carcasses of the animals to achieve closeness to Hashem, those physical things would have eternal spiritual significance. This same potential exists in the wooden boards that make up our tables. By taking one of the ultimate physical acts (eating) and one of the ultimate physical items (food) and consecrating them to Hashem, we highlight our desire to bring our physical selves closer to Hashem, and not be locked into our physical and transient desires. How great is the potential that lies in our tables where food, which is digested in a matter of hours, can be put in an eternal spiritual storehouse to be enjoyed forever!
Some Initial Steps
How, you may ask, do we incorporate these lofty concepts into our everyday meals? How can we bring this boundless spirituality into our simple repasts? Two possible suggestions to at least start ourselves on the right track: Firstly, the sages tell us that the concept of blessing Hashem before one eats serves as a proclamation that Hashem is the true provider of our sustenance and, actually, only by blessing Him does one truly acquire the food. In fact, if one fails to say the blessings, one is considered to have stolen that food from Hashem. If one looks closely at the words of each blessing, this concept can be seen clearly.
For instance, we bless Hashem who "brings forth bread from the ground." Man is not the one who has brought it forth; rather, in His great kindness and love, G-d has given Man the ability to bring forth that bread. If Hashem wanted, any factor could prevent such a blessing, whether it be famine, bad health, or persecution. If one time each day, maybe our first bite to eat, we could make the correct blessing and at least attempt to concentrate on the fact that this bite is a wonderful gift from our loving Father, how much more significant that food would become. Our eating would truly be sanctified and spiritually everlasting! If one doesn't know the correct berachah (blessing), one needs only purchase a book with a berachah index at your local Jewish bookstore and recite the beautiful words of praise it suggests.
Secondly, one of the greatest levels that one can achieve in his eating process is to feel wholeheartedly that he is only eating each morsel to strengthen himself so that he may better serve Hashem. Although this is a difficult accomplishment for us to achieve, we can at least begin on the path that will lead us to this deeper understanding. The sages in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 3:4) state that if three people eat together and fail to mention words of Torah, it is as though they have eaten of offerings to the dead idols. However, if they mention words of Torah, it is as though they have eaten from the table of Hashem.
By linking our meals to words of Torah study, we show to a certain degree that our greatest desire while feasting is to be able to strengthen ourselves to learn and obey the Torah, the will of Hashem as we know it. It is by this alone that our eating becomes linked to the table of Hashem and His everlastingness, rather than to the idols of our desires which are so instantly lifeless. We can start by speaking some words of Torah at one of our Shabbat meals. By delving or even mentioning the words of Hashem while engaging ourselves in such a deceptively physical pursuit, how much holier that act becomes, and how many treasures will be created in the World to Come to await our enjoyment!
The Malbim, author of a classic 19th century commentary on the entire Bible, writes that the vessels in the Mishkan correspond in their physical placement to various parts of the human anatomy. By that token, he explains that the table corresponds to the human heart - the organ that basically nourishes the cells of the human body allowing their continuous existence with the provision of blood, its concentrated source of oxygen. So too, the table represents Hashem's relationship to us as the sustainer and provider of our physical rejuvenative needs through the bestowing of food. However, it is only by recognizing that Hashem provides that food, and knowing that we must use that sustenance to better serve Him, that we can elevate that food and convert it into spiritual sustenance. By accomplishing this feat, Hashem more willingly provides us with the food that we need, and we can achieve the goal of sanctifying that food and ensuring its everlastingness.
Let's begin today. Let's start concentrating, at least once a day, that it is Hashem who brings forth our bread and creates vegetables and fruits, and thereby, we will come to the mental and emotional realization that it is His endless love that provides for us. Let's start speaking words of Torah at least at one of our meals today, and show our desire to bring ourselves closer to the realization that we should dedicate all of our actions to the service of Hashem. If only we can begin on the path towards truth and eternity, with small but well-planned steps, Hashem will surely help us along the way.
Ranon Cortell, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.
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