Skip to content

Parashat 05/11/2011

Parashat Behar

by Robert Rabinoff

And you will eat until you are satiated. (25:19)

Rashi: Even within the belly there will be a blessing.

This verse is stated with regard to the Shemittah (Sabbatical) year, when all agricultural work is forbidden.  Gd nevertheless tells us that we will eat either the stored fruits of the bumper crop from the 6th year (the year prior to the Sabbatical year), or the produce that grows by itself (e.g. from grain that was left over in the fields from the previous harvest and sprouted on its own) during the 7th year.  Incidentally, the statement in the verses following our verse, that guarantees huge harvests in the 6th year, when the land has presumably been worked more and fallowed less than the normal once-every-third-year schedule, is often used as a “proof” of the Divine authorship of Torah.  Clearly no human lawgiver would dare to make a guarantee he couldn’t back up.  Not everyone is a Joe Namath.


Rashi appears to approach this phenomenon from a somewhat different angle.  He refers to a different kind of satisfaction, which is equally miraculous.  Our Sages describe it thus: even if we eat very little, it “expands” within us until we are satiated and nourished with just that small amount.  We see this for example in the lechem hapanim (show breads) that were baked every Friday and placed on the golden table in the Temple on Shabbat, until the next week when a new set replaced it.  What happened to the previous week’s show breads?  They miraculously stayed fresh for the whole week and they were eaten by the Kohanim who were serving in the Temple that week.  Eating just an olive-sized piece (the minimum amount considered “eating” in Jewish law) left each Kohen as satiated as if he had just eaten a full meal.


How do we reconcile these two approaches.  In the book Al haRishonim, the explanation of the Sforno is summarized:

The Seforno (on Vayikra 25:19-21) explains these pesukim as follows: Hashem promises that the small amount of produce left over from the previous year will satiate one who trusts in Hashem. If someone questions what he will eat in the shemittah year, though, Hashem will provide him with three times the amount of the regular harvest in the sixth year. Thus, one who trusts in Hashem will miraculously survive on an unnaturally small amount, while someone who lacks the proper trust will require three times the normal quantity.



As is always the case, the way we react to the physical world, and they way it reacts back on us, is dependent on our spiritual level.  On a more ordinary spiritual level, we need a significant amount of physical food to sustain our physical bodies.  Thus Gd promises us a bountiful harvest going into the Shemittah year, enough to sustain us normally, according to the ordinary laws of nature, through the fallow year and into the time when the next crop can be brought in from the fields.  On a higher level, a small amount of food gives us complete nourishment and leaves us feeling full and satisfied.  Note however, that it does take some food, something physical, on which the blessing can take hold.  In the same way, when the prophet Elisha wanted to provide for the poor widow (Melachim II, chapter 4), he had to ask her what she had in the house.  She had oil, which he could miraculously increase, but he could not create something out of nothing – only Gd can do that.


Torah also indicates that there is an even higher level that one can attain, at least temporarily.  Moshe describes his time on Mt. Sinai as a time when “I did not eat bread and I did not drink water.”  For forty days and forty nights, Moshe Rabbeinu was sustained physically by purely spiritual inputs.  Of course at this time Moshe was on the mountain, in as close proximity to Gd as anyone has ever come (taking “going up to the mountain” figuratively as the ascent of his soul closer to its source), so the Divine effulgence was less filtered and attenuated, and more able to sustain him.  Later, when the Tabernacle is dedicated, a portion of the inauguration offerings’ meat is given to Moshe (who functioned as the Kohen Gadol during the first 7 days of the inauguration, before turning the role over to Aharon), presumably to eat.  After his descent from the mountain (again interpreted figuratively as a “descent” of his soul back to its physical “garment” – that is, his body), apparently his body again required physical sustenance.  To be sure, the meat of an offering is sanctified and provides spiritual sustenance primarily, but nevertheless, it is also physical; perhaps it should be comparable to the small piece of food that satiates.


Modern physics more and more views physical reality as a complex set of vibrations of a single, underlying, unified field.  That is, what we perceive as concrete is actually something completely abstract, moving within itself.  Depending on what level of abstraction we are discussing, a system may need more or less in the way of external inputs to sustain itself.  On the surface level of atoms and molecules, gasses and solids, a system can only evolve and grow if it is open to external inputs of energy and matter.  Thus a human body must take in “bread” or it will die.  On the ultimate level however, we believe that there is only the unified field, moving within itself, with nothing external to it at all.

I think that what Torah is telling us is that if we put ourselves in such intimate contact with this “unified field” that we are completely identified with it, then we recognize and live the reality that there is nothing external to us, and we need nothing external to ourselves to be nourished.  Perhaps Torah is telling us that Gd is not an “external” reality – it is only our limited awareness that makes us think so.  From the level of limited awareness we must go outside ourselves to sustain ourselves; from fully expanded awareness we participate in Gd’s self-sufficiency, for our souls have “reunited” with Gd.


In Devarim (Deuteronomy 8:3) Moshe Rabbeinu tells us Not by bread alone does a person live, but by all that comes out of the mouth of H” does a person live.  Our mission is to rise above the purely physical and live life sustained by Gd’s Word, so that through our physical actions, Gd’s Word will be made manifest in every aspect of physical creation.  Thus the physical world may become sublime and perfect, and infinitely nourishing.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 4

Rabbi Shimon says: … But three who have eaten at a table and have spoken there words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten at the table of the Omnipresent…

What is Gd’s table like?  Clearly it is not anything material.  When he speaks of “eating at the table of the Omnipresent” Rabbi Simon (bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar) must mean receiving nourishment from the most refined levels of creation – nourishing even our bodies, and certainly our souls, from the pure radiance of Gd that emanates from the Source of the entire creation.  If our bodies are still crude, we need the crudely congealed form of Divine energy that we call “food.”  If we truly imbibe words of Torah, we can take the congealed energy in the food and re-refine it back to its infinite nature, raising both it and ourselves back to Gd.