Monday, June 08, 2009

Question & Answer With Chaviva - Your Mitzva

(Painting by Isaac Besancon)

A Simple Jew asks:

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 26:22 states that it is appropriate to instruct your children before you die to strengthen their observance of a specific mitzvah on your behalf. Furthermore, it notes that if your children fulfill this mitzvah it is of greater significance than their reciting Kaddish.

With the understanding that your answer is only offering a conjecture, what mitzvah would you envision instructing your children to strengthen in your merit?

Chaviva answers:

It is interesting (almost beshert!) that you should ask me this question. I recently found out that the husband of a good friend of mine started keeping kosher at the request of his grandmother as she lay on her death bed. This woman requested different things of her different grandchildren, including that another one of the grandchildren daven daily, three times a day. Both of these grandchildren have fulfilled the wishes of their grandmother in full, and as a result, both individuals are growing more and more in their observance and are inspiring to those around them.

"Honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12) is one of the most basic and essential of the commandments or Decalogue, which I had the pleasure of hearing over Shavuot in shul. Although it is significantly important to fulfill this command in life, it is almost more important to fulfill it in death, as Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 26:22 states: "After their passing, he is obligated to honor him more."

Although I am neither married nor the mother of any children (yet!), your question resonates with me as someone growing daily in observance. For me, the most obvious response to what mitzvah I would envision instructing my children to strength is kasruth observance. Why? Food is sustenance, it helps us through the day, giving us energy for all that we do. Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 70 says "The belly carries the feet." So much of what we do in Judaism surrounds food, be it the holidays of Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah or Pesach where we are commanded to consume certain types of foods in order to relive our experiences, or the Shabbos dinner table where we convene with friends and family from near and far. Judaism is a religion, culture, life fulfilled through a foundation of food.

It is written that "Man does not live on bread alone, but by the utterance of G-d's mouth does man live" (Deuteronomy 8:30). The Kabbalists taught that nestled within every created thing is an "utterance of G-d's mouth," and that when the body hungers for a piece of physical bread it is simply a reflection of the soul's craving for the divine utterance ("soul") within the bread. When we eat, in this example kosher bread, we uplift the divinity within the food toward a G-dly purpose. Thus contained within our physical hunger is really our hunger for the soul of the food, the sparks of holiness within it. After all, there was more depth to Solomon's prescription for man to eat, drink, and enjoy the pleasures of his labors from G-d.

On a daily basis, we consume (in theory) three meals, with snacks and desserts intermixed. Often we just know that we are hungry, so we pick up whatever is nearby, eat it, and whether we feel full afterward is the goal, not the process or thought behind it. But when one goes to eat, he or she should think about what is healthy, how hungry they are and what foods will sate that hunger, how to prepare the food, and where to buy the food. It is an activity that requires much thought. But the act of eating requires even more thought when one is observant of kashruth. Why? Because you have to make sure you are buying kosher foods, that your meat is properly killed and prepared, that you are not mixing meat and dairy when preparing food, you have to think about which pots and pans to use, which silverware and plates, you have to consider in what order you will eat the food, and you have to consider how long you will have to wait between your meat and dairy meals. Furthermore, and on top of the entire process, you have to consider which blessings to recite over which foods, making every meal and every snack a holy act in which you treat the food, your body, and your neshama as a temple. In sum? It requires a lot of planning. Keeping kosher makes you 110 percent conscious of everything you are buying, putting into your kitchen, onto your dishes, and subsequently into your body. From dawn until dusk, you are required to be hyper-conscious of everything that you do: food drives the body and mind throughout the day.

If I could implore my children to take something seemingly mechanical like eating to a higher spiritual plane, then my memory would be truly honored. I want my children to be hyper-conscious of all that they put in their bodies, to look at food as more than just things put on earth for our free use. I want every morsel of food consumed to be a holy act, working toward a greater goal of observance and spirituality. It seems like such a simple, ineffectual act at the outset, but over a lifetime, or even just a month, observing kashruth can inspire the undertaking of more mitzvoth. Food should be an act of cause and effect, an act with intention: eat to sustain and nourish, use the energy to perform and fulfill mitzvoth. And this, this is how I will instruct my children.


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