By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
The Greek philosopher Socrates used to counsel others that they should eat to live, not live to eat. Some recent scientific research has shed meaningful light on this age old challenge, by exploring how our brains respond to food and other pleasurable stimuli.
There are two main reasons that we eat. One (referred to by scientists as “homeostatic eating”) is for the nourishment. The other reason that we ingest is for the pleasure that we derive from eating. The latter category is so prevalent that we routinely get ourselves into trouble. According to Dr. Spryos Mezitis, an endocrinologist at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, “This type of eating, called ‘hedonic eating’, is a (primary) cause for obesity.”
Scientists now have a better understanding of the chemistry involved with hedonic eating and why it can be dangerous. They have identified chemicals that trigger the hormones that regulate reward mechanisms. These chemicals stimulate appetite, encouraging us to eat more. And the more hedonic eating you do today, the more you’ll want to do tomorrow. Of course, with so many food related temptations here in the United States, it’s no wonder as to why obesity is such a problem in this country.
Obese people react much more hedonistically in the pleasure and reward circuits of the brain to sweet, fat-laden food than healthy-weight people do. Simply seeing pictures of tempting food can light up the pleasure-seeking areas of obese peoples’ brains.
But the news is not all bad. According to Dr. Mezitis, such information “opens the door to more research into figuring out how to block these appetite stimulants. Because these chemicals are increasing – causing you to eat more – if we can then figure out how to block these chemicals, then we wouldn’t be eating as much.”
While scientists may view this struggle as one of hormonal irregularity, the Torah sees it as the basis for achieving sanctity in our lives. Last week’s parasha, Kedoshim, begins with the words “Speak to the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael and say to them: ‘kedoshim tihiyu’, you shall be holy.” (Vayikra 19:2). Rashi points out that the need to speak to “the entire assembly” teaches us that this mitzvah was deliberately given “b’hakhel“, in the presence of the entire assembly of Israel.
How are we to achieve this requisite level of holiness? Rashi interprets the above mitzvah as one of abstinence from forbidden relationships. Ramban argues that the Torah requires us to minimize our engagement in permissible activities, emphasizing moderation with regards to eating, drinking and other physical pleasures. Without such self-limitation, a person can become a ‘naval b’rishus haTorah’, a gross individual operating within the limits of the Torah.
The Chasam Sofer notes that regardless of which understanding of kedoshim tihiyu we embrace, the message of this mitzvah is the need for abstinence, as evidenced by the fact that the message needed to be delivered b’hakhel. After hearing the message of kedoshim tihiyu, one might have erroneously concluded that the only way to achieve this level of sanctity would be to live a monastic existence. The Torah therefore makes clear that the holiness that it seeks is the sanctity that can be achieved in the context of the community. We are obligated to marry, bear children and enjoy the pleasures of this world in a manner that is both focused and moderate.
Parshas Emor continues along the same theme of sanctity, as it opens with a discussion about the sacred lives of kohanim. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to Vayikra 21:1, highlights the fundamental distinction between dibur, speaking, and amirah (the noun form of emor), informing, as the basis for explaning this most unusual verse.
Speaking is the expression of thought in words, without any consideration of its being accepted by the hearer. But informing is always “telling somebody.” One can speak to oneself, but not inform. Whereas dibur is the concise expression of a thought, emor is addressing the same to the mind and feeling of another person, the complete explanation and development of a thought into genuine understanding. Hence in the speech of the Torah, dibur is always the concise, pregnant expression of the Law, as given in the Written Torah, but emor is the full explanation of it in the Oral Torah.
Typically, a pasuk begins with a verb (either vayidaber or vayomer) which introduces that which Hashem subsequently conveyed to Moshe and/or Aharon. In this pasuk, however, the double expression of amirah (emor… v’amarta) reflects the fact that the first amira contained its own message. According to Rav Hirsch, this message was “speak to bnei Aharon“, share with them the fact that they received their status as kohanim exclusively as a birthright for being descendants of Aharon. As with other emor, this message was to penetrate their essence, so that they could properly appreciate and internalize the noble task to which they were assigned, and rise up to the level of kedusha attached with their priestly function.
In a world that is so fundamentally devoid of kedusha, it can sometimes appear impossible to achieve any meaningful level of sanctity. An analysis of these parshiyos provides us not only with a template for holiness, but an action plan that ensures its attainment. Of course, we must resist any fundamental threats to holiness, such as in the form of illicit conduct. But we also need to appreciate the sanctity that emerges from controlled abstinence. Lastly, we are obligated, kohanim and non- kohanim alike, to appreciate the special responsibility that we have been entrusted with, so that we can fulfill our sacred mission as holy members of Hashem’s special nation.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting (ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at email@example.com.