You never thought you would hear this from me.
I’m going to tell you about a diet.
What does that have to do with Purim?
Please read on. With Hashem’s help, we’ll get there.
I heard about a certain diet. I’m not saying I follow it, but why am I even interested? I’m not really into these things. But I do want to be healthier.
Over the years I’ve found that eating makes me tired. I understand that digestion takes a lot of energy, but I find this phenomenon distressing, because I cannot afford to be tired. I know I need food to live, but I feel as if my body is actually rebelling against its own nourishment. I assumed there must be a better way; the challenge was to find it.
Recently, I saw a friend after a separation of several months. He looked much younger and was free of aches and pains that had plagued him for years. So what happened? Turns out he was following a diet created by a physician from a prestigious medical center. The diet was both radical and old-fashioned, designed to eliminate artery disease.
What was the basis of the diet?
Plant foods. Yes, plant foods. In other words, you eat plants but you don’t eat animals and animal products. That’s pretty radical, right? I’m not a faddist, and I’m the last person to speak about diets, but I found this diet intriguing, not just because of my friend’s striking physical appearance but also because it seemed to make sense in terms of my strong feeling that food ought to give one strength rather than weakness.
Dear readers, this is the diet from Gan Eden.
Years ago, I wrote about this subject in my book Worldstorm: Finding Meaning and Direction Amidst Today’s World Crisis,” which was published in 2003. Did you ever think about what Adam and Chava ate in the Garden of Eden? What was the food in that Perfect World, in which there was no death and no disease and no stress, in which gashmius did not conflict with ruchnius? Do you know what they ate?
Fruit. Fruit from trees – “pri ha’etz.”
Granted, Chazal tell us that “Adam, the first man, would recline in the Garden of Eden, and the ministering angels would roast meat for him …” (Sanhedrin 57b), but this, the Gemara explains, “refers to meat that descended from Heaven,” not the meat of animals.
Think about it. There is one class of food that does zero damage to the environment. It is the perfect food, and that is why it was the food in Gan Eden. When you pick fruit from a tree, nothing dies; nothing is wasted. Even the seeds become the source of a new and beautiful tree. Tree fruit is perfect because there is total benefit from eating it and no damage of any kind.
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The second most perfect food is fruit from the ground, what we call vegetables, foods like potatoes, onions, carrots, melons, beans, beets – the food on which we make the berachah “borei pri ha’adamah.” (This category would also include grain, most of which is processed into bread and “mezonos” foods.)
As I understand it, this type of food was permitted only after mankind was expelled from Gan Eden. Thus, Hashem said to Adam and Chava as they exited Paradise (Bereishis 3:17-19): “Accursed is the ground because of you. Through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken….”
Hashem told Adam and Chava, “You will now be forced to eat herbs rather than the fruits of the Garden to which you were heretofore accustomed” (Radak). According to Ibn Ezra, “Man … is now worse off than the animals. Originally, he simply ate wheat with no preparation. But now, before man can partake of food, he must first sow, thresh, knead, and bake….”
Fruit of the ground requires tremendous exertion to cultivate. The life of a farmer is hard, and his parnassah is by no means assured. And this is the prototype description of our entire life of toil which became mankind’s lot after we left Gan Eden. Before that, Hashem supplied food without requiring any labor on our part.
There is a poignant account of the difficulties associated with raising crops in the book The Mountain Family by Tzirel Rus Berger: “We planted squash, corn, okra, beans potatoes, onions, tomatoes and corn…. First came a torrential downpour that washed away a lot of seed. Then the rabbits began picking … [then the] cutworms … [then a] herd of deer came by for a midnight feast … [then our cows ate] the potatoes and onions….” (Shaar Press, p. 123)
Besides the difficulties of planting and harvesting, there is a fundamental reason why fruit from the ground is inferior to fruit from a tree. One must kill to eat it. Yes, the “herb of the field,” as opposed to the fruit of a tree, is destroyed every time one harvests a potato, an onion, or a beet. You must pull the entire plant from the ground, and that kills the plant. The following year, the ground must be plowed, seeded, and harvested, which, as noted above, is a very arduous process involving zai’as apecha – the sweat of our brow – with which mankind was punished after we were expelled from Gan Eden.
The third and lowest level of food is that derived from animals. After the Flood, Hashem gave mankind permission to eat animals and animal products, as it says, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you….” (Bereishis 9:3). This was a concession to our weakened condition after the trauma of the Flood and the painful world in which we were forced to live after our expulsion from the Garden.
Food from animals is the lowest form of food because we have to kill an animal, which is a psychologically and physically difficult process involving numerous halachas.
“Meat, which was prohibited to Adam, was permitted to Noach because it was because of him, and for his needs, that God had spared the animals. Were it not for man, they would not have been spared. Secondly, Noach toiled over them and attended to their needs in the ark…. He had thus acquired rights over them.” (Ohr Hachaim)
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One remarkable fact about my friend’s diet stood out to me: the two highest forms of food, which have the least negative effect on this world, are the foods permitted in this diet, which made the diet seem as if it had a spiritual as well as a physical component.
We Jews are in a constant battle to improve ourselves spiritually, to increase our mitzvos and ma’asim tovim. Clearly, part of our spiritual avodah involves guiding our physical desires so they benefit our spiritual essence. We are aiming for a time when we can return to the purity of life as it was when Hashem created us, at the beginning of history.
This seems consistent with the words of the Ramban, who says that at the end of history “Man shall return … to [the spiritual state] he was in before the sin of the first man, when he would do by nature that which is proper….”
According to Rabbi Moshe Eiseman (commentary to the ArtScroll edition of Sefer Yechezkel, p. 509), at that time we will once more find ourselves in Gan Eden as it was before the sin. The ideal state of mankind is when the soul, following the guidelines of the Torah, exercises control over the body and there is no inconsistency or tension between them.
But this is an article about Purim! What does all this have to do with Purim?
Actually, the connection is remarkable.
The problems that brought Am Yisrael to the brink of catastrophe in the time of Achashveirosh all began with a banquet – a kosher one at that! – at which our ancestors were indulging themselves. Our entire nation was almost destroyed because we created a huge chillul Hashem at a banquet that apparently satisfied all halachic requirements. How can we understand this?
Clearly it is vital to understand it, because the consequences are profound and eternal. It seems that when our lives are guided by the desires of our palate, we can destroy ourselves completely. This is shocking, but it is supported by not one but two references in the Shema, the cornerstone of our tefillah, which we say at least twice daily. So it must be big.
We say “[Do] not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray ….” Instead, we should go after the tzitzis, which represent the Taryag mitzvos. This clearly means that the things we see with our eyes lead us to destruction. When we go after mitzvos, we are being led to life. If we go after our material desires, we are moving close to danger.
When our ancestors demonstrated – in the presence of the Holy Vessels from the Beis HaMikdash that were being publicly desecrated by Achashveirosh – that their desire to eat and drink outweighed their fear of Heaven, they were making a public spectacle out of their abandonment of Torah. Their desire to satisfy their physical appetite overcame their desire to serve Hashem. This offense placed all Jews in mortal danger, from which only the courage and brilliance of Mordechai and Esther saved them.
Also in the Shema we say, “You will eat and be satisfied.” This is immediately followed by “Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and bow to them….” Why this juxtaposition?
It would seem the Torah is telling us that the precise moment we stand in a weak position and can fall easily into seduction and, God forbid, “turn astray and serve gods of others” is when we have eaten and feel “satisfied.” The moment we focus on our physical satisfaction, we are extremely vulnerable to destructive influences.
How were we saved from a catastrophic fate in Shushan Habira?
“Esther said to…Mordechai: ‘Go assemble all the Jews that are to be found in Shushan and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day, and I, with my maids, will fast also…’ ” (Megillah 4:15-16)
When eating controls us, it is a sign that we have strayed from the service of Hashem. When we are serving Hashem, our physical desires don’t control us; we control them. This reassertion of the primacy of serving Hashem is apparently what saved us on Purim. The power of this teshuvah was so great that it carried us to salvation then and can carry us in our generation through to the days of Mashiach.
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This is what stood out about “the diet from Gan Eden.” I realized it’s possible for us to alter our ruchnius through our gashmius. Maybe taking control of our appetites enables us to take control of our ruchnius. What happened in Shushan Habira shows us that we can change our fate by working on our physical habits and attitudes.
Let me be clear: I am not recommending a diet nor am I recommending the avoidance of meat. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “The Torah demands no vegetarianism nor does it have any aversion to eating meat. It even makes it a duty on festivals.”
The point is that our life in this world, physical as well as spiritual, has to be under the authority of the Torah, which teaches us that there need be no conflict between ruchnius and gashmius.
There’s a big lesson here for us. The Megillah shows us that our entire nation, in the face of an existential threat, was able to turn around. It took two leaders, Mordechai and Esther, and it took people who were able to comprehend the need to save themselves. But the fact is that, as the Megillah testifies, we did it. It’s not impossible, even though we needed a shock treatment to wake us up.
“The matter [of Mashiach’s arrival] depends only on repentance and good deeds…. Rabbi Yehoshua [asked Rabbi Eliezer]: If they do not repent they will not be redeemed? Rather, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will appoint a king over them whose decrees will be as harsh as [those of] Haman. And the Jewish people will repent. And [in this way God] will bring them back to the right path….” (Sanhedrin 97b)
Our yomim tovim are amazing. These events, which took place thousands of years ago, are totally contemporary. Megillas Esther shows that our teshuvah can begin with our attitude toward gashmius. The fascinating thing is that on Purim we Jews do something that is really not in our nature: we get drunk. But is l’sheim shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. If we can go against our nature that way, we can also elevate our entire material existence in other ways.
We can go on a physical and spiritual diet, motivated by our desire to free ourselves from slavery to our “heart and our eyes.” Through this teshuvah, we can merit to live in a world of (Megillas Esther 8:16) “light, gladness, joy, and honor.”
And this time, it will last forever.