As we experience once again the days of chometz u’matzah, we look back to Pesach and suddenly realize that we just experienced a seven-day period with a near obsession with food. ”Do we eat this?” ”Can we trust this hechsher?” are just some of the questions we all ask, and that every rav hears, in the days and weeks leading up to and during Pesach. And, indeed, the Torah put the focus and emphasis of Pesach on… food ! Chometz and Matzah, around which Pesach revolves, is all about the form that that food staple will take. And thus so much of our commemoration and celebration of zman cheiruseinu is fixated on the food we bring into our kitchens, and into our mouths.
And, as we read the second half of last week’s sedra, we realize that so much of our daily lives is concentrated on making sure that the food that we eat is acceptable—kosher.
How do we understand that? The meforshim explain that Hakodosh Baruch Hu, Who created food, knows that certain foods hamper our connection to ruchniyus and form blockages in our quest for holiness, purity, and spirituality. Thus it is vitally important to make sure that the food we eat is indeed kosher—for if not, then, besides violating Hashem’s will (which certainly should be reason enough to deter anyone ), we have created spiritual blockages, making it that much more difficult to rise above the animal in us. And that should frighten anyone enough to worry about the hechsherim we must rely on due to the structure of the world most of us occupy.
When reading these lines, you may be somewhat skeptical that food carries such power. How, exactly, does food nourish our spiritual side and have the potential to ruin it?
Instead of directly answering that question, I would like to address the skepticism which leads to it, and to all too often a diminishing concern that what we eat be religiously untainted, ignoring the severe damage that the wrong foods can cause.
Let’s face it: does the average person have any inkling of how food provides for the physical aspects of life? I submit that we do not! And if we did, we would be astonished! We might even start believing what we say in our tefillos: “And for your miracles which constantly surround us.”
Do we ever stop and think how the food we ingest becomes the very fabric of physical life itself? And once we absorb the physical miracle of how that happens, we will more easily realize that it is just as likely that food affects the spiritual as well. Here is a tiny bit of the vast complexity and miraculous reality that we know that food accomplishes:
When we eat foods, they are not in a form that the body can use as nourishment; they must be changed into smaller molecules before they can be absorbed into the blood and carried to cells throughout the body—which itself is a whole system of absolute miracles. Digestion is the process by which food and drink are broken down into their smallest parts so the body can use them to build and nourish cells and provide energy—life itself!
Digestion begins in the mouth, when you chew and swallow, and is completed in the small intestine. Food is pushed into the esophagus, which connects the throat with the stomach. The stomach has three tasks: it stores the swallowed food, relaxing the upper part to accept large volumes; it mixes up the food, liquid, and digestive juices in the lower part; it slowly empties its contents into the small intestine. As the food dissolves into the digestive juices, the contents of the intestine are mixed and pushed forward. Finally, the digested nutrients are absorbed through the intestinal walls and transported throughout the body. Waste products are pushed into the colon, where they remain until the feces are expelled by a bowel movement.
Carbohydrates: The digestible carbohydrates, starch and sugar, are broken into simpler molecules by enzymes. Starch is digested first with enzymes in the saliva and pancreatic juice that breaks it into molecules; then an enzyme in the lining of the small intestine splits that into glucose molecules that can be absorbed into the blood. Glucose is carried through the bloodstream to the liver, where it is stored or used for energy. Sugars are digested in one step.
Protein: Giant protein molecules must be digested by enzymes before they can be used to build and repair body tissues. An enzyme in the stomach starts the digestion of protein. Then in the small intestine, several enzymes from the pancreatic juice and lining of the intestine complete the breakdown of protein molecules into small molecules called amino acids, which can be absorbed through the small intestine into the blood and then carried to all parts of the body to build cells.
Fats: Fat molecules are also a source of energy. The first step in digestion of a fat is to dissolve it into the watery content of the intestine. The acids produced by the liver dissolve fat into tiny droplets and allow enzymes to break the large fat molecules into smaller ones, including fatty acids and cholesterol. Other acids then combine with the fatty acids and cholesterol and move these molecules into the cells of the mucosa. Here, the small molecules are formed back into large ones, most of which pass into vessels, lymphatics, which carry the reformed fat to the veins of the chest, and the blood carries the fat to storage depots in different parts of the body.
@Vitamins and Minerals
Another vital part of food that is absorbed through the small intestine is vitamins.
Vitamin A: essential for good eyesight, normal growth, healthy cell structure and to increase appetite.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): helps break up carbohydrates, aids digestion and improves appetite and nervous system functioning; helps build alcohol-damaged nerve tissues.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): needed for healthy growth of skin, nails and hair.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin): essential for proper blood circulation and healthy functioning of the nervous system.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): helps prevent skin diseases and nerve problems, and helps maintain blood sugar levels and absorb protein and carbohydrate, and is essential in making of hemoglobin.
Vitamin B12: essential for normal development of red blood cells, formation of nerves, production of genetic composition in cells, and aids in effectively absorbing and using carbohydrates.
Vitamin C: boosts the immune defense system by protecting it from viruses and bacteria and healing wounds.
Vitamin D: needed for strong bones and teeth and proper absorption of calcium and phosphorus.
Vitamin E: essential for normal brain function and cellular structure and formation of red blood cells.
Vitamin K: extremely important, as it is needed for the clotting of blood by playing a role in the production of prothrombin.
Folic Acid or Folate: essential for production of red blood cells; generally prescribed for women in their first trimester to prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida, cleft palate or cleft lip.
Minerals: calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, phosphorus and others keep body fluids in proper composition, keep blood and bones in top form, maintain healthy nerve function, and regulate muscle tone and the cardiovascular system . Without minerals, vitamins lose much of their effectiveness.
This is a fraction of what goes on when we ingest and then digest. Do we understand “how” all this happens? In what way it all happens? The complexity, the stages, the method, the means, the outcome?
Surely we don’t…
Yet the purpose or writing this was to give a “sha’ar bechinah”-type, infinitesimal glimpse into Hashem’s universe. Should it then surprise us if the meforshim say that food is broken down into spiritual components, and that just as there is junk food out there, harmful in varying degrees, there is non-kosher spiritual junk food, harming our path to Hashem? That what we eat creates spiritual spheres as well as physical ones, giving us ruchniyus energy and metaphysical stamina?
Be careful of what you eat; it matters, for it becomes, in the final analysis—you.