(Review of the book by Gary Taubes, Why We Get Fat)

The Bible never gives up importance for the sake of comfort. It forces us to look at the many failings of our ancestors. They are by no means beyond criticism, just because they are ours. What ought to have been “the greatest generation” turned out to be the greatest failure. In the biblical retelling of sacred history, those who left Egypt, who saw and experienced the most sustained Divine Intervention into human affairs known to our tradition, could not manage a steadfast faith. Their first two years in the Sinai were characterized by one rebellion after another. Eventually, God consigned them to live out their days in the Wilderness, where they managed their one great accomplishment: they raised up a generation who, born in freedom, knew how to think like free people.

Among the “rebellion narratives” to which we now turn, in our annual cycle of reading the Torah, is one that I would warrant did not make it into your Sunday School abbreviation: “The Graves of Craving.” It’s a complex story, with many lessons to teach, so please read the entire passage, Numbers 11:4-33. Here, I shall focus on one portion of it and apply that to our lives today.

Now, the gathered riff-raff that were among them had a craving, hunger-craving, and moreover they again wept, the Children of Israel, and said: Who will give us meat to eat?...There is nothing at all except for the mahn [manna] (in front of) our eyes…

Then the LORD spoke to Moshe:…Now to the people you are to say: Hallow yourselves for the morrow, that you may eat meat. For you have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying: Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt! The LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat it: Not for (only) one day shall you eat it, and not for two days, not for five days or for ten days or (even) for twenty days—(but) for a monthful of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes for you something disgusting because you have spurned the LORD who is among you…

…and a rush of wind moved from the LORD and swept in quails from the sea, they spread out over the camp… and all about two cubits upon the face of the ground. The people arose all that day and all night, and all the morrow day, gathering the quail… The meat was still between their teeth… when the anger of the LORD flared up among the people and the LORD struck down among the people an exceedingly great striking. So they called the name of that place Kivrot Ha-Ta’avah/ Burial Place of the Craving…

(Numbers 11:4-6, 16, 18-20, 31-34)

They ate meat until they died!
What does that have to do with today?

Now, people don’t like to be hectored concerning their dietary choices. How many rabbis keep their jobs by preaching constantly about keeping kosher? In matters of diet, as in most areas of life (except for boot camp and sports coaching), we want our advice to be supportive, not censorious. Moreover, I am a rabbi, not a fitness expert. So I will tread lightly:

Americans are grappling with the health consequences of too unnatural a diet. Processed foods, refined sugar, fast carbs… and, correlating with that, epidemics of diabetes and heart disease. Everywhere we turn, we see that more and more of our most prevalent diseases are the product of our civilization.

Back in the day, one might have said, “too rich a diet”. But part of the sad truth is that many of our poor are in “food deserts”, where their practical choices are non-nutritious. Here, our challenge is philanthropic and educational. We need to be forces to heal our society.

Thinking about the Bible story with this in mind: the story can and does teach many lessons, but one lesson for us, today, is that we can kill ourselves by having “too much of a good thing.” That’s not the original lesson. In the Bible, people starving to death was the real and recurring problem. Drought and famine, warfare and siege—natural and human factors caused death by starvation, rather than death by heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-exacerbated conditions. But today, our situation makes us able to hear overtones of the Biblical melody, not only the principal tone. The overtone for today is: God made a world in which we are adapted. God has provided the “manna” of nutritious fare. Our tradition rightly sees that as an aspect of God’s love and mercy. Let’s not be too quick to improve on the sustenance that allowed millions of years of human evolution to take place.

Next time we say the grace after meals: ha-zan et ha-olam kulo b’tuvo (God, Who nourishes all life in goodness), let’s take this lesson to heart, as well.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Michael Panitz