By its very nature eating to me is a spiritual practice. There are two components to food. The “what” and the “why.” As for the “what” that’s the food itself. The “why” is the choice I make to eat knowing the history behind the dish and its connection to the community of growers, workers, and eaters with a sensitivity to the vulnerable in our community who do not have access to nutritious food. Foods without a “why” I call “Flat Food” because it is opaque and without context. The spirituality of eating, then, is measured by the depth of the “why.” This is, to me, the power and depth of our Jewish food ethic to know the context of every morsel that passes between our lips. And so, at the end of this week, when Jews worldwide observe Tisha B’Av, the day of remembrance for the destruction of both the holy temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively, the “why” or in this case, “why not” completely overtakes the “what.” On all other holidays we remember uplifting moments like our quest for liberty through story of the Exodus, or the celebration of harvests and bounties on Sukkot and Shavuot. Who could forget God’s saving grace through miracles of Chanukkah, and to lesser degree Purim? None of this is so with Tisha B’Av. This holiday is our darkest hour when our freedom turned into slavery (Lam. 2:9), when feasts turned to famine (Lam. 4:5), and when God’s saving grace turned into wrathful destruction (Lam. 2:4).
For most Jews, Tisha B’Av is a nonstarter. It occurs in the middle of the summer when most of us shift down from the hectic everyday hubbub into something a little lighter and slower. We go on vacation and the kids go to camp. We have summer dreams of strawberry popsicles and lemonade (well I do at least). Then comes this dark holiday, that jilts us, and we think why do I want ruin my summer vibe with such a downer day? The tradition tells us to refrain from eating because of our mourning and remembrance for the pain, the loss of life, and the feeling of theological abandonment that occurred on those frightful days hundred of years ago. Tisha B’Av can have the effect of ruining a perfectly good summer — similar to when you are having a nice meal and someone tells you a horrible story. You sit there eating and when you here the tragic story it’s like you say, “I’m not hungry anymore. I can’t eat.” Which brings us to our central question, what can foodies learn from the darkest of holidays when the sacred dish of the day is nothing at all? What do we learn from the Jewish “Black Fast”?
For me, there is a small spark of spirituality in this dark moment. When we read Lamentations, the book of the Bible chanted on Tisha B’Av, with spiritual empathy, we cry with the mother who cannot feed her children (Lam. 2:19). We mash our teeth with the man who feels ground into the dust (Lam.3:6). When we chant their stories in the melancholy tones of the evening, we go down into the pit of their despair and see how bad the world can get when we succumb to our own pettiness and senseless hatred. (TB Gittin, 56a, Lam. Rabbah 4:3) We walk the ruins of Old Jerusalem with the survivors, acting out with radical empathy by physically enduring the hunger and fear as a nation of orphans, widows, and poor people (Lam. 5:3-4). Our Black Fast brings us to the bottom, showing us how broken the world is — in order that we know what must be done to redeem, repair, and build a world that turns darkness into light, chaos into order, and fear into hope. For foodies, then, fasting is of the deepest part of the eating experience. It is the foil from which all other food is appreciated and sets in motion the very context from which the “why” of food is born. With the fast we answer the simplest of question of why we eat – because we can.
The rabbis say that the messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av (T.Y. Berachot 2:4). For a modern it’s not the personhood of the messiah that counts, but for the idea that he symbolizes. Each of us can aspire to be a redeemer by sifting through the smoldering husks of destruction and finding the sparks of new life. The Black Fast gives us the moral compass to know just how bad it can be and for us to stand our ground and say, I will not let the world be this way. Funded by the idea of hope born out of this dark day, we can return to the rest of our lives and know what work needs to be done — to share our bounty, to clothe the naked, and to repair the breaches in the walls of our own relationships through the most powerful of all spiritual notions — teshuvah.
From the fast and lamentations of Tisha B’Av to the celebration of the sweet new year with apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah seems like a great distance. In truth it’s only seven weeks, about the same time between Passover and Shavuot. That’s seven opportunities to make teshuvah over Shabbat dinner, or Seven Sundays to plant a garden and teach a child the “why” of our food. Overall, it’s over fifty opportunities to work at soup kitchens, food pantries, and homeless shelters to help the poor and homeless. Beginning with the Black Fast, we can use our empathy to work for justice and to rebuild and repair the world, just in time for its birthday.
Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is the founder of Netiya, an L.A.-based network of Jewish organizations focused on food education for environmental and social justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and @RabbiNoah on Twitter.