Faithful friends

On mindfulness and matzah

Unleavened bread reminds us of our basic life requirements and invites us to ask the question: what is it I really need to live?  Freedom means freedom from oppression, but it also means freedom from our addictions.  Passover reminds us to return to the blessings we have, and take careful stock of what we want.

(-- Rabbi Jill Hammer, Tel Shemesh newsletter)

Blessing and mindfulness are major parts of Jewish dietary practice, and I value that. There's something powerful for me about pausing to sanctify the food that I eat, and about being aware of what I'm putting into my mouth and why.

Powerful -- though not always in positive ways. Along with every other woman I know (and not a few of the men, too,) I've wrestled with body image, and with the messages popular culture sends about what kind of body a woman is "supposed" to have. It's easy to cross the fine line between being mindful of what I eat, and monitoring my consumption (or, worse, punishing myself for my appetites) in an unhealthy way. There are certain kinds of dietary vigilance which can be spiritually toxic.

Still, being thankful for my food and attentive to what that food is, and where it comes from, and how it was farmed or raised -- these are important parts of my Jewish life. (This is one reason why Caretaker Farm is some of the holiest ground I know.) And Pesach brings Judaism's focus on body and consumption into high relief. A few years ago I blogged some teachings from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg about the symbolism of hametz (leaven) and matzah ("Passover, matzah, dialectics.") My challenge, as always, is to embody that heady theory in a way that uplifts my life.

Because Pesach is a holiday so many of us observe through dietary constraints, it's a great time to make eating a mindfulness practice. Every time we eat this week is an opportunity for remembrance. This week we're meant to relive our exodus from the Narrow Place, our journey from slavery into freedom. And we can remember it, at least for a flash of a second, every time we choose what to put in our mouths -- whether we "keep the Pesach" in a traditional way, or not.

Somewhere in his voluminous writings, Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers a teaching about how hunger and eating relate to the four worlds model. If I find myself hungry, he writes, I should ask myself: on which level am I hungry? If it is indeed my body which is hungry, then food will satisfy me. But if I hunger in the emotional world of yetzirah, or in the intellectual world of beriyah, then eating food on the physical plane of assiyah will not satiate my hunger.

In the physical world, this week we set bread aside and eat the flat cakes our ancestors improvised when they left Egypt in haste. (Well -- those were probably more like chapatis or naan or tortillas or soft matzah. Manischevitz's sheets of perforated papery cracker bear little resemblance to what our ancestors would actually have prepared. Whatever; it's still a metaphor, whatever shape it takes.) What does this choice mean in the imaginal realm, in the worlds of emotion and thought and essence?

That we can get by on less than we think. That it's useful to remember how to find holiness not only in familiar shapes (the puff of challah), but also in shapes which may be uncomfortable (matzah, bumpy and flat). That food can satisfy us on emotional and spiritual levels even if its physical form leaves something to be desired. And that it's important to be willing and able to brave liberation even if it's unlike anything we've ever known, even if it means leaving the comforts of our elaborate kitchens behind and grabbing flatbread for the road.

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