Delicious and devastating life on Earth
by Jhos Singer
This week’s parasha, Bo (Exodus 10:10-13:16), closes out the famous Ten
Plagues episode, which leads us to the liberation of the Israelites from slavery.
The final plague, “Death of the Egyptians’ Firstborn,” saturates Chapter 12 with
mayhem, chaos, and terror; and ends with the Israelites’ final, frantic dash to
escape. With all that trauma and drama, it is fascinating that a primary concern of
the text is food. The chapter even begins with a recipe of sorts.
God is speaking to Moses and Aaron and says: “Speak to the whole
congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth day of this month everyone shall
take for their household a lamb …and on the 14th day of the month the whole
assembly of Israel will kill the lamb at dusk. And they shall take the blood, and
put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel of the houses where they will eat it.
And they will eat the meat in the night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread, with
bitter herbs. Don’t eat it raw, or boiled in water, but roast it with fire…” (Exodus 12:3-9)
I’m a food freak. I enjoy spending hours cooking for friends and family. I love
turning a few bags of groceries into a feast. I appreciate the way flavors combine
or fight. I marvel at the magical effect that heat has on roots, tubers, and
squashes. I savor good, well prepared, food. And more than that, I love the drash
of cooking—transformation through heat; finding sweet fruit beneath a bitter rind;
how food magnetizes culture, stories, and family lore.
Eating is one of the defining features of life—every living thing has to eat, has to
sustain itself with an external energy source. Humans have elevated eating into
worship, art, and ritual; and we have also discovered in it a pipeline for self-
abuse, addiction, and escape. Our rabbis teach that eating food is unique to this life:
“Rav was wont to say: The World-to-Come is not like this world. In the World-to-
Come there is no eating, no drinking… Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns
upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence, as it is written:
‘And they beheld God, and they ate and drank.’ (Exodus 24:11)” Babylonian
Talmud, Berakhot 17a
That is to say, in the World-to-Come we will be nourished by pure spirit. No more
killing for meat, or threshing for grain, or uprooting herbs. We won’t need special
recipes or eating rituals to celebrate our gladness or to remember our trials. I
suppose that what Rav was riffing on is that once we are beyond the body, we
will be beyond its pleasures and its pain. But that’s not where we are now.
The Exodus story is a birth story of Judaism coming into its body. And if I’m not
mistaken, this is the first time since the Garden of Eden that God has
commanded us regarding how, and what, and when to eat. Like a parent, God
knows we are about to find out just how delicious and devastating life on earth
can be. Use food to grieve and celebrate. Mark your houses and fill your bellies.
As I write this musing, a pot roast is slow cooking in the oven and the house is
filling with its sweet savor. The world outside is blustery and cold. Societal
injustice and oppression are still alive and kicking; inequality and paranoia
continue to wreak havoc around the world. My pot roast has an outsized,
Brobdingnagian carbon footprint—there is environmental blood on the doorposts
and lintels of my house.
In a few weeks, the Torah will teach the Israelites to make sacrifices of their roasts in order to save their souls. And in a few decades, we modern Israelites may have to sacrifice making our roasts in order to save
our planet. Either way, our eating is inextricably linked to birth and death, to redemption and destruction.
While we are here, may we continue to grow, to learn, to yearn, to praise, and to
revel; may we embrace the bitter, sweet, sour, and salt of our lives; and may
every day reveal something praiseworthy, beautiful, and delicious.