The Garden of Eating
Years ago, when I was attending an NCSY shabbaton, a counselor suddenly stood up on a chair during the Friday night dinner, and dramatically exclaimed, “What if I told you today that you were not really a Jew?”
Standing up in front of 200 people, I blurted out, “I’d go out and eat a cheeseburger!”
I’m pretty sure this was not the answer he was hoping to hear, but I was already keeping kosher and hated the restrictions I felt were infringing on my life. I had to say something out loud and express my desire to finally get this “kosher burden” right off of me!
Of all the mitzvos I was fulfilling, I always wondered why keeping kosher was particularly difficult for me. Maybe because growing up in the Bible Belt of Georgia meant that keeping kosher was particularly challenging. Today you can wine and dine in beautiful kosher restaurants in cities like New York and Los Angeles, and there is an endless supply of supermarkets and bakeries catering to Jewish buyers. But throughout my childhood, access to kosher food was somewhat limited.
On top of that, most of my friends weren’t religious, and oftentimes I would find myself in a non-kosher setting, sipping a Coke, while everyone else enjoyed their tantalizing sushi, lobster, and hamburgers. Thus, for a very long time, keeping kosher felt like a burden to me – something that I did because it was law, rather than a mitzvah with which I genuinely connected.
Eventually, not content with continuing to keep kosher by rote, I decided to dig a little deeper. I wanted to learn and uncover the real meaning behind this profound law and its intricate practices. Keeping kosher impacts us all day long, from morning, when we eat breakfast, to the late night snack we nibble before going to bed.
And where better to look for an answer to my kashrus queries than the Torah itself? By taking a closer look at the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, one that has been told and retold innumerable times, I found the inspiration for keeping kosher in my own daily life.
On the sixth day of creation, G-d created Adam and Eve. God’s very first words ever spoken to Man were, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Bereishis 2:16-17)
Of course we know how the story ends: Adam and Eve eat from the tree and immediately notice that they are naked. When G-d sees them and asks what happened, Adam responds by blaming Eve, who in turn blames the serpent for tempting her, and so begins the fall of mankind…
The Torah does not use any word unnecessarily, and each phrase has something precious to teach us. In His first utterances to Adam, Hashem uses the words “of every tree” and “may freely eat.” This phrasing shows that Hashem is providing for Adam and Eve in abundance. He gives them a beautiful garden full of trees that are “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” Instead of one or two fruit trees that would provide sufficient sustenance, Hashem provides an entire garden and tells them they can eat to their heart’s content. Fruits of so many colors! Tastes! Textures!
When G-d blessed us with this appetizing array, there was only one limit that He put in place. From all the food in the garden, Adam and Eve were only forbidden from eating the fruit of one tree. Only one tree was off limits!
Can you imagine how easy it would be to keep kosher if only one food was prohibited?
Of course the guidelines to what makes food kosher are more complex than the law to abstain from one tree, but in their essence these restrictions are quite similar. The Tree of Knowledge was specifically set “in the midst of the garden” – meaning that Adam and Eve couldn’t help but notice it. They had to walk past the forbidden tree and smell its delicious fruits, telling themselves over and over again that the tree was off limits.
Just think of the last time you saw an advertisement for a juicy cheeseburger on TV, or inhaled the tantalizing scents wafting out of the non-kosher bakery. Not to mention when children nag for non-kosher junk food at the amusement parks each summer! Non-kosher food is all around us, begging to be consumed.
Now let’s go back to Adam and Eve in the Garden. While it is easy to say that the commandment they receive from G-d is a negative one, “Don’t eat from the tree…” if we take a step back, a different picture emerges. G-d’s initial command is actually a positive one: “Eat from every tree…”
Most people’s perception of the laws of kashrus is negative, focusing on all the things we are not allowed to eat, but if we look at G-d’s words to Adam, kashrus is actually a positive mitzvah.
Not only is keeping kosher a positive assignment from God, it can also help keep us healthy. The food we eat is what gives us energy to accomplish our goals. For example, an Olympic gymnast who has trained her whole life will only put the best possible nutrients into her body to help her maintain her physique and perform to her optimal ability. Studies continue to abound showing that today’s over-processed foods are having a negative impact on our bodies and slowing us down.
Food is not just a physical thing; it can also impact our emotions. Sugary foods have been shown to influence our emotions, particularly in how it affects anger and mood swings. Numerous studies have been conducted for over two decades, including ones that studied the influence of food on the behavior of inmates in jails. A 37% decrease in violence was seen after changing to a more balanced and nutritious menu. The impact on the brains ability to function optimally was also substantially shown. The evidence is clear and considerable: What we put in our bodies has a major impact on us!
The short answer to why we observe the mitzvah of keeping kosher is because the Torah says so. We do what the King declares is good for us. Keeping kosher is one of the mitzvos that is considered a chok – one for which there is no known reason. But just as we appreciate that some food is better for our bodies than others, we can appreciated that some food is better for our souls than others. Our eating kosher becomes a way to infuse our actions with holiness. Even the “mundane” act of eating can elevate us to new heights!
When we eat a meal, we are reminded that we are Jewish. Hashem has commanded us precisely which animals, birds, and fish we can consume, for reasons far beyond physicality. Making choices can help us recognize that choosing kosher means we are fulfilling another incredible positive mitzvah.
By opening our eyes and seeing the incredible bounty of food that He has given us, rather than dwelling on the items we can’t have, we will recognize that Hashem has entrusted us with the laws of kashrus not as a burden, but as a tremendous brachah.