Bread and Memory – Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

I want to thank all of those who wrote in response to yesterdays’ blog. And I mean “all,” For I started to reply to the first few individually yesterday. However, if I continued, it would have taken yesterday evening and the whole of this morning. I have never had such a voluminous feedback to any blog that I have written before. Was it the subject matter with which so many could identify? Was it my approach? Or perhaps the style I had adopted.

The responses fell into different categories. There were those who advised me on the biochemistry of why eating bread becomes an addiction and eating fruit does not, though I eat even more fruit than bread. Eating carbohydrates is connected with the production of serotonin by the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can cross the blood-brain barrier to produce a feeling of pleasure. Carbohydrates – and very little is needed – leads to serotonin production.

If I stop eating carbohydrates, then no serotonin. Further, if eaten with pastrami, the protein offsets the serotonin production. If I eat quickly – and I do – then the serotonin is not produced fast enough to turn off my passion for carbohydrates. I act too quickly to give it a chance. I may not have gotten the science right, but you get the idea. “Challah and euphoria are universal, if not tribal.” There is also the physiology of the process – the effects on mood, on concentration, on sleep – which I have not gotten into. I had no idea how many scientists read my blog.

There were the humorists who tried to enter a friendly competition with me. One congratulated me for my “very evenly leavened depiction of the predicament. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while. I wasn’t laughing at you but out of recognition of and identification with the problem.” All said and done, we are all part of the great unwashed overfed brotherhood of bread fanatics.

There were those who shared my pleasure and those who reprimanded me, not for eating rye or challah or bagels, but for my poor taste. “What a bagel!” Those fluffy high-rise excuses for bagels are made by Israelis who should stick to Pita. An Israeli never learned to bake or boil let alone appreciate a good bagel. They had just become ersatz Americans for whom bagels have now become their favourite breakfast food. Now Gryfe’s. There is a good bagel. Or District Bagels in Montreal. “Bagel World in Toronto and the overly expensive Buby’s NY bagel are the true, dense, chewy, exuberant poopy seed versions.”

Many assured me that my condition was treatable. I could get control over my compulsive disorder and learn to maintain self-discipline and sobriety. Others suggested that I was genetically doomed. Further, the genetic pattern was geographically determined, in Toronto, via “Litvacks primarily! Montreal and New York had earlier and different immigrant patterns than Toronto…though we were contaminated by Pollocks, Galitzianers and the Romanische.” Others offered a number of tricks used in dieting in general to manage my weight. I could save bagels for family occasions and then savour them more richly.

There were very many women who wrote, though the category included one man, who offered me advice (and a great deal of sympathy) on how I could treat my addiction. They congratulated me on my courage at openly confessing that I was addicted. They ached for me. They felt my pain, even though I had indicated that I was addicted to the pleasures of eating bread, at least delicious bread with deep roots in Europe. They had been there themselves. Some of them had mastered the literature, the tools and the use of societal groupings to bring their addictions under control. They offered to share their experiences and advice in greater detail. I cannot thank them enough for their sympathy and their willingness to assist me.

There were, of course the more professional psychologists, though one writer advised that I simply need a substitute narrative for the one I put on display that is so entrancing. For “emotional eating is rooted in the subconscious. So no wonder conscious attempts fail.” There is an App (Insight Time) on offer that can help but it involves inventing an even more amazing food story than the one I told. I would have to give up my authentic history for a fictional one. Then there were also the historians who reiterated traditional analyses of the ancient Greek distinction between the Apollonian vs Dionysian cults.  Perfection vs pleasure; reason vs feelings; mind vs matter; virtue vs vice; the equally ancient Asian distinction between the ‘higher’/rational realm vs the ‘lower’/sensuous realm.

This analysis easily slipped into the region of theology. There were those who offered a very radical religious remedy. “Convert! Renounce your Judaism (and its customs like eating bagels and rye) and adopt some other faith. The shock to your sense of identity might be sufficiently powerful to provide an antidote to your addiction.” On the other hand, another writer accused me of being too akin to Catholicism.

As it turns out, there is a specific theological dilemma that is addressed in this week’s Torah portion dealing with bread. In Deuteronomy (9:9), Moses informs the Israelites upon his return from getting the ten advisories that

He not only did not eat bred during the 40 days but abstained from water. “And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.”

וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן הוֹדִעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי יְי יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם:

Man lives by bread, but not by bread alone. “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) In the desert the Israelites learned to live with manna from heaven. After the death of Moses, they would cross into the Promised Land where they could farm, grow grains and bake bread. There is a difference in elevation, geographical location and chronology. The manna from heaven precedes the growing of wheat and the baking of bread.

What is the difference between the heavenly bread (manna) and the earthly bread? מן or mon means a ready-made portion of food, fast food. Earthly bread was to be slowly leavened overnight, baked at the correct temperature for the proper length of time. Mon, in contrast, was fast food. So why is fast food associated with that which has status, that which has greater significance, that which comes from heaven?

First, it was of limited supply, an omer or 43 ounces. Just enough to be satiated but never enough to be overfed. And it could not be preserved. Only on Friday did the Israelites get a double portion for no manna reigned down on shabat. That is why the blessing for bread on Friday evening uses two loaves of challah. Bread, the best bread, was linked to manna from heaven. But how? And why?

Certainly, manna did not taste like bread. On the one hand, it was similar to a bagel and tasted like it was boiled in oil. But manna was also like a chameleon with different tastes depending on who digested it and at what age. Manna is a gift of God. Bread is a product of toil and time, of patience and loving care. Bread lives and rises. Mon falls. Bread requires growth. Mon is a product of daily repetition.

But bread is also a tempter in two very different senses – to our taste buds and to our pride in what we produce by our own two hands. Success seems to depend exclusively on our own efforts. “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, Till you return to the ground. Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

According to the sages, the blessing for manna is said first lest we forget the One to whom we owe everything. Moses pointed to heaven and manna. Joshua led us to land on which we could grow barley. But no nation can be great if its bread tastes like cardboard. It was important to bake good bread, tasteful bread that was delectable to our palate. Beauty may belong to the soul but bread belongs to the belly.

From heaven we desire recognition, appreciation and love. Bread does not love us. We love bread. With bread, we disperse recognition. We grade, we rank, we appreciate and we are passionate about the different breads we prefer. With manna, we are left unsatiated. With bread, we are satiated, if only for the moment. The heavens may be the daily bread for the eyes, but for the tongue and our nostrils, only genuine bread will do. When I smelled the cinnamon buns baking in the oven of my Aunt Gladys – and I can still recall that smell – I return to an age of delight and innocence.

Bread is about judgement, not about commands from on high. For we have to decide which side our bread is buttered on. On the other hand, we listen for the manna falling. We are commanded to listen to God. 92 times in Deuteronomy alone! Attend. Hear. Heed. Judaism is both a religion of listening and a religion of eating. In contrast, the Greeks taught us to see and believed that by seeing we would know. Indulging the appetites allowed us to take our eyes off the prize. The appetites were opposed to the intellect, whereas in Judaism, they are different but complementary.

In Judaism, knowing is NOT primarily seeing. Knowing is what happened between Adam and Eve. When Adam was a knower, he named things. He offered taxonomies, But he did not recognize Eve as an independent other but as an extension of his own body and saw his own body as an independent other. His sin was not in knowing Eve but in not knowing he was embodied. Judaism teaches us that we are embodied as much as it calls for our souls to listen to voices from above. Greeks saw or failed to see. Israelites listened – and ate. Greeks esteemed detachment; Jews esteemed attachment – to God and to our wives and children. In the Greek agora, there were only men.

Eikev. Ekev. Ekeb. Egeb. עֵקֶב. I try to weave them dialectically together. If you follow, if you follow what you hear and if you listen to the rumbling in your belly as well as what comes from on high, only then can you take up the responsibility for both yourself and the society in which you live. The appetites are not at war with the mind. Rather, they keep the mind grounded. And that is what it means when Jesus said to his disciples, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19) Not that Jesus claimed divinity or to be an embodied deity. But if God was above, if God provided manna, Jesus was bread and bread, its smell and taste, was the embodiment of memory. Listen to God. Remember me.

Remember you mother’s rice pudding and the cinnamon buns of your Aunt Gladys. And listen to the word of the Lord.

So eat you bagels. Eat your challah. But be mindful.

“Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

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