by R. Gidon Rothstein
Akeydat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Thirty-Two, First Part
Why Food Matters, and How It Leads Us Astray
At the beginning of this, the penultimate sha’ar of Sefer Bereshit (I just like the word penultimate, use it whenever I have the chance to refer to the second to last of a group or list), R. Arama tells us he aims to consider why food is necessary to sustain the intellect in the soul, then to see how it misguides people to warped priorities, to focus on the less important and neglect the truly important.
The problems start at birth, when a person has a physical body and a soul, the part of the person that speaks and is fully human (he says all agree to this dualism, sadly no longer true in our time). The two develop together, leading some to make the mistake linking them in death, thinking the soul dies with the body. Just as the vital part of physical life withers and dies, these people argue the soul does, too, citing Kohelet 6;7, where the verse speaks of a person working only to feed his mouth, then adds “and the soul will not be filled.” To them, the soul will not be filled with the power to live on, is no more immortal than the body.
Such people—we have seen R. Arama address them before—reject the search for eternal life, seek other types of lasting goods. Many of them hit on gathering money to leave for their descendants, a plan R. Arama derides as recognizably weak to anyone who thinks clearly (aside from all else, because we cannot guarantee they will be able to hold onto that money).
No one of good intellect thinks the search for money could possible be humanity’s ultimate purpose; if not, the excessive focus on money clearly detracts from the pursuit of that more significant goal.
Lest We Put the Windpipe Before the Trachea
Ta’anit 5b says Ya’akov did not die; R. Arama thinks the Gemara was telling us he had focused on the true priorities, developed his intellect, and had an immortal soul. The idea was shared by the amora R. Yitzhak at a meal; he had refused to speak earlier, based on R. Yohanan’s rule against talking during a meal, lest one choke—expressed in the Gemara as shema yakdim kaneh le-veshet, lest the person put the trachea before the esophagus. R. Arama reads the Gemara to mean we do not apply the ideas of food to a person’s essence (I am skipping how he fits it into the Gemara; in brief, he reads kaneh, the trachea, as a symbol of true life, including especially the intellectual, where veshet, the esophagus, is about the physical. After the meal, R. Yitzhak repeats the idea in another way, the part of Ya’akov that’s independent of the meal, the intellect, doesn’t die).
He sees it as a continuum, the less refined parts of the body nutriified by the thick, indelicate parts of the food, some parts of the person so refined they can be sustained by ideas alone, and others in the middle, good aromas can do it. The ideals of the Torah keep the soul alive, as Devarim 8;3 says, not by bread alone, but by all the words of Hashem do people live (I think we understand it to mean people live by obeying Hashem’s words; he is saying the soul itself is fully sustained by Hashem’s words, they are like food for the soul).
It’s the Thought That Counts
To clarify food’s effect on the soul, he turns to how Hashem “experiences” sacrifices. The Torah describes them as reah nihoah, a pleasing smell, and Sifrei says the pleasantness wafts from the obedience of the people offering the sacrifice, their submission to the Divine Will (not the physical aroma of the burning meat).
Our physical bodies receive direct nourishment from food, while the intent of the meal shapes what the soul gains from it. At a se’udat mitzvah, the mitzvah underpinnings give the soul a boost. Mishlei 13;25 supports the idea, a righteous person eats le-sova nafsho, to the satiety of his/her soul. [Rambam reads the verse to mean the righteous person weighs his food pleasures carefully, eats only for the goal of keeping him/herself alive.} R. Arama is taking it to mean the person’s reasons for eating themselves affect the soul.
On the last page of Berakhot, R. Avin Ha-Levi says anyone who participates in a meal where a Torah scholar is found is as if s/he is enjoying the shining of the Divine Presence. There, too, R. Arama thinks the Torah scholar represents the developed intellect, having such a person at a meal focuses those present on the right intentions.
I am not going to give all his Scriptural supports for the idea; he takes them to tell us that if we think carefully about what we eat, we will eat only what is permitted, only as much as we need to keep us healthy. In doing so, eating becomes a spiritual experience, where the person enjoys time in the Divine Presence (for R. Arama, shaping our lives as Hashem would want itself leads to time in the Divine Presence).
People who reject the idea of a soul [he knew of such people in his time!] turn away from the path of personal perfection and success of the soul, substituting the chase for money [this isn’t the first time we have seen him complain about his contemporaries’ focus on money, especially in order to leave an inheritance for their children, as if that were the goal of life.] It reminds all—the rich, who neglect other values because of their money, the poor, who rely on the rich and spend their time trying to be like them—not to let money become essential.
Wealth gave people of his time the certainty they would always be able to secure the food necessary for their health and long life [we today have developed faith in other guarantors of health and long life, such as exercise or various regimens of pills]. R. Arama objects to the physicality, the failure to realize life is about the combination of the physical and the service of Gd, with the former a subordinate help to the latter. Tehillim 49;13 refers to such people as being like animals, because death for them will be more final than it had to be, will be the point they realize they could have developed their non-animalistic side. They miss the intellectual/spiritual side of the human, what sets us apart from the animals, the specific parts of ourselves that are eternal, because the ideas the intellect considers are themselves eternal).
Their eventual recognition of mortality, and longing for immortality, tells R. Arama there is a way to immortality, because people only long for what is possible [a remarkable idea of its own, that if we can want it, it has to be in some way possible!]. If they want to live forever, there has to be a way, the way of the intellect, as it happens.
Next time, we will see how he applied these ideas to the end of Ya’akov’s life, what he sought for himself and to teach his sons and grandsons.