Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36)
Forks Over Knives; Voices and Choices
…but it must be purified with purifying waters. (31:23)
One of the cryptic aspects of Jewish observance is the mikvah, a ritual body of collected rainwater or a natural spring. It is used on various occasions having to do with a change of status. For example, a convert to Judaism immerses in a mikvah immediately prior to becoming Jewish. A woman immerses in a mikvah after her period before being intimate with her husband. There is another, less known, use of a mikvah and that is immersing metal utensils used for cooking and food preparation, if they were not made by a Jew. A frying pan might be new and completely kosher but according to Torah law it cannot be used until it is immersed in a mikvah. Why is there only a need to immerse metal utensils used in the preparation (or serving) of food?
One way to look at the mikvah is that the one who immerses in it leaves behind a previous status and upon existing has a new set of possibilities. How does this relate to immersing metal food related vessels? Metals, more than other traditional materials, bear the greatest imprint of human intelligence. Other ancient materials like wood and clay do not approach the utility of metals. Metals can be bent, shaped, and formed into all various shapes and sizes suitable for any purpose. Metal utensils symbolize the higher aspect of a human being; the part that intelligently conceives a goal and then sets out to realize it through cleverly designing the implements to do so.
However, not all metal utensils require immersion in a mikvah. Only those whose function pertains to human food must be immersed. Now, eating is hardly one of a man or woman’s higher functions. Anything alive one way or another must ingest material to sustain itself. The halachah (law) of mikvah appears to be odd because it mixes the highest part of human existence with the lowest and most primitive.
Rather than see this as an incongruity, it must be seen as the central theme of mikvah for utensils. Metal utensils used for food represent the partnership of our higher, i.e. intellectual and spiritual abilities, with our physical instincts, which are shared with the animal kingdom. This meeting can go in one of two ways. It can subvert a person’s higher abilities and put them in the service of the more primitive, or it can do the opposite. The Torah never abandons any part of the body or deems it unworthy or unspiritual. When we use our spiritual gifts to appreciate the Almighty’s design for our lives, we raise up our lesser parts and turn them into mechanisms for spirituality. When we take a metal utensil to mikvah, we inaugurate it into a use very different from the ethic of the rest of mankind.
When we do this, we underscore the importance and prominence of the intellectual and spiritual sides of ourselves – the very tools necessary for us to make the right choices in life. Food is meant to be our sustenance and in Jewish consciousness when we make a blessing before and after eating it serves as a reminder that food is something for which we are grateful. It causes us to pause and appreciate the pleasure we get in the various tastes we experience when eating. However, when misused, that same substance can literally kill a person. According to the National Institutes of Health, “obesity and overweight together are the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States,” close behind tobacco use; an estimated 300,000 deaths per year are due to the obesity. “Preventable” implies that this tragedy could have been avoided if better life choices were made. When our sensuality (as it relates to food or other things) is the arbiter in determining whether or not to indulge in something, the result will ultimately be unfavorable. The mikvah concept allows us to reconsider food and other physical pleasures. As Jews we are obligated to enjoy them but when they are misused those same pleasures carry the potential to be fatal. Realizing that the vessels used for the food we eat have been given new potential allows us reconsider what and how we eat.
Each of us strives to live the ultimate existence; a life in which I am at peace with myself. That process begins with appreciating the physical pleasures of the world but at the same time learning to use them in a way that transcends physicality. A documentary released in 2011 called Forks Over Knives focuses on the dangers of wrong food choices. The title is an allusion to the idea that a healthy diet consists of things you can eat with a fork (i.e. no fast food); the alternative leads to “knives,” which refers to surgery. The mikvah concept and the perspective it gives predates this documentary by thousands of years. Every time we take a pot, pan, dish, fork, spoon or knife to a mikvah, we remind ourselves to allow our brain–or, perhaps soul–to be the final decisor in the decisions we make regarding food and ultimately other crucial areas of life that might be prone to be ruled by the body.
The choices we make throughout life determine how much pleasure we will have in enjoying the things and people who are part of our life’s story. No matter how many bad choices one has made, each of us still retains that pure inner voice that knows what is right and what will bring us the greatest benefit. You know you are alive as long as you have that voice but it is only you that has the ability to heed it and make the right choice.
(Source: Rav S. R. Hirsch Chumash, 31:23)