ESSAY: Gastronomic Universe
On the idolatry of Peor, the crowds of Rome, and the
digestive process of creation
PERSONAL INSIGHTS: Virtual Reality
Where reality, optimism and reason collide
INSIGHTS : On Feats and Feet
The head serves many functions, least amongst them as
a mode of transportation
What is pleasure? We use the word in relation to so many
and diverse things. What do a steak, a musical composition
and an idea have in common? Yet pleasure is our
word of choice in describing our experience of a meal, a concert,
or an intellectual revelation. For as different as the sensations
derived from these things may be, they share a common essence:
the capacity to impart a sense of fulfillment to the human
Indeed, all pleasures flow from the same font. The teachings
of kabbalah describe the created reality in terms of a chain
of evolution (seder hishtalshelut), whose uppermost
link is G-ds pleasure in His creation, which spawns
the divine desire to create. This divine desire then passes
through many stages and metamorphoses, evolving into worlds
and realities of increased tactility. Every object, force
or phenomenon is simply another form of the generic divine
desirethe differences between them lie only in the manner
and extent of their† evolution. The higher a reality is in
the chain, the greater its awareness of its source;
it is thus more spiritualmore subservient
to the divine will, less possessive of a sense of being and
self. The further down it passes through the chain, the more
distant it becomes from its source: the less aware
and subservient, the more tactual and egocentricthe
Hence, the more spiritual a thing is, the more profound the
pleasure it yields, for it is closer to the source of all
pleasure. The ultimate pleasure lies in the experience of
union with G-d through the fulfillment of His willan
experience that relates to the very first link in the chain,
where pleasure resides in its most pristine, unprocessed
In its lowest reaches, the chain of evolution
yields things that are unconduciveor even contraryto
what G-d wants. The capacity of these things to give pleasure
is an existential paradox: all pleasure is but the embodiment
of the divine pleasure in creation, while these pleasures
are divine displeasuresthings contrary to G-ds
will. Yet they, too, are products of the divine desire, since
their capacity to give pleasure fills a certain function in
G-ds purpose in creation: G-d desired that we be confronted
with a free choice between good and evil so that our deeds
should be meaningful and significant. But G-d wants that these
things should exist only in order that man should reject them
as contrary to His will; so theirs is an existence whose inner
essencewhose function and raison dÍtreis
not to exist.
Chassidic teaching employs the metaphor of† digestion
to explain this phenomenon. Digestion is the process by which
food passes through the various organs which break it down
and separate its finer elements from its coarser ones. At
each phase of the process, this separation grows more and
more defined; ultimately, the finer elements in the food evolve
into body-building cells and energy, and its coarser elements
are ejected by the body. Both the nutrients and the waste
are products of the digestion process; but the
former is generated to be used, while the latter is generated
to be rejected and thereby enable the bodys absorption
of the former.
By the same token, the chain of evolution is
the cosmic digestive system in which the essence of creation
is processed into the substance and energy of the universe
that G-d desired. This process (like every process we know)
also generates wasteelements that must be separated
and disposed of in order for the desirable product to properly
develop. Of course, G-d could have evolved His world in such
a manner that the good develops without any separation of
waste (or, for that matter, He could have not
evolved it at all), but He desired that the good
in creation should be all the more sharply defined by its
contrast with the rejected evil; that human life should be
an exercise in refinementin distinguishing between the
calories of divine energy and the sludge of putrid waste in
our own self and character, our environment and our world.
Indeed, the very concept of good, as we know it,
would be devoid of all meaning were it not for the challenge
of rejecting the evil that vies for validation and indulgence.
Thus, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains the following
incident related in the Talmud:
Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua
and Rabbi Akiva were traveling, when they heard the sounds
of the crowds of Rome from a distance of one hundred and twenty
mil. They began to weep, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Said they to him: Why are you laughing?
Said he to them: Why are you weeping?
Said they to him: These barbarians, who prostrate
themselves before statues and sacrifice to idols, dwell happy
and secure, while wethe footstool of our G-d was consumed by fire.
Shall we not weep?
Said he to them: That is why I am laughing. If for
those who transgress His will it is so, how much more so is
it for those who do His will.
Rabbi Akiva is saying: if the waste produced
by the divine desire in creation can yield such pleasure for
the hedonist, imagine the pleasure to be derived through the
fulfillment of His will, which is the source and essence of
In the Fortieth Year
Therein lies the deeper significance of the idolatry of Peor,
to which the Jewish people succumbed on the eve of their entry
into the Land of Israel, as related in the 25th chapter of
Numbers. The worship of Peor was a particularly
repulsive form of idolatry, in which the worshipper exposed
himself to the idol and defecated before it.
In truth, however, this was but the physical enactment of
what a person does each time he prefers a mundane pleasure
over a spiritual-G-dly one: he is worshipping the offal of
creation, venerating something whose only significance is
its need to be rejected in favor of the energies that were
extracted from it.
This is why Israels vulnerability to Peor
came about at the close of their forty-year sojourn in the
desert as they camped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River
poised to enter and settle the Land of Canaan. For forty years,
the people of Israel had enjoyed a wholly spiritual existence.
Manna from the heavensspiritual food that yielded no
them; the miraculous well of Miriam sated their
thirst; clouds of glory sheltered them from the
harsh realities of the material world. Thus insulated, they
were free to pursue the divine wisdom of Torah without distraction
or interference. They inhabited a spiritual idyll, in which
the waste of creation was unknown.
But now they stood at the threshold of a new era: they were
to settle the land, till its soil, engage in commerce and
politicsi.e., to live a physical life sustained by physical
means. For the first time in their history as a nation, they
were to be in direct contact with the nether levels of the
chain of evolutionwith that part of the
cosmic digestive tract which separates the waste from the
body of creation. For the first time, they were called upon
to differentiate between vital mattermatter that nourishes
a spiritual endand mundane mattermatter as an
end in itself.
Not all were equal to the challenge. There was an outbreak
of Peor worship in the Israelite camp, as many
were enticed by the pseudo-pleasures to found in the undesirable
by-product of creation. Until one manPinchascame,
and with his selfless commitment, unclouded vision and decisive
action, put a halt to the plague of Peor.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Balak,
5723 (July 6, 1963)
by BenTzion Rader
There is a fashion in language as in almost everything else.
One of the in phrases today is Be Realistic!
Whether used as an exhortation, admonition or as gentle chiding,
it is usually prompted by exasperation that the person to
whom the remark is directed refuses to see reason.
Reason in this case being that he refuses to forgo
time honored values and traditions that have stood the test
of time in exchange for the transient modes and mores of the
moment. He is old fashioned because he refuses
to swim with the tide, or irrational to cling to ideas and
ideals which were given long ago and do not conform with modern
trends.† Another aspect of this call for realism is the argument
that even if might is not right one cannot buck the establishment
or fight City Hall. So, for instance, Israel,
which is so dependant on the USA and others, must temper its
actions accordingly, even though it may not be in its best
What is a realist? A wit once defined a realist as an
optimist with experience. This description may not be
as cynical as it at first seems.
A valuable lesson in realism may be learned from the events
which led up to the Chassidic Festival of Yud Beis Tammuz
which we celebrate this week. The facts are well documented,
not least of all in the lucid account from the prolific pen
of the Previous Rebbe himself. Briefly stated they are that
in 1927 the Soviet authorities, keen to stamp out Judaism
in the USSR, arrested the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi
Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, on trumped up charges of activities
against the State, intending to sentence him to death. Paradoxically,
those who arrested him paid the greatest testimony to his
stature. Intent on promoting a G-dless society and destroying
the paraphernalia of observance, they saw in the previous
Rebbe, and the followers he led and inspired, the greatest
threat to their designs. Remove the Rebbe, they reasoned,
and the organized promotion and observance of Judaism would
end. The mighty Soviet machine that had toppled the great
Czarist regime was afraid of this one great Jew and the influence
Incarcerated under unspeakable conditions, tortured physically
and mentally, the Previous Rebbe had to face a final interrogation
by a committee of three who would decide his sentence. Ushered
into a long room at the end of which sat his inquisitors,
the Rebbe, physically abused and suffering injuries from which
he never fully recovered, walked slowly towards them. Unbowed,
he initiated the conversation by saying: This is the
first time that I recall entering a room without people standing
up! One of the interrogators jumped up, shouting remonstratively:
Quiet! Do you know where you are? Still walking
towards him, the Rebbe replied: Yes! I am in a room
which according to Jewish Law does not require a Mezuzah:
a stable or a bathroom.
The end of that chapter of the story was that the Rebbe was
sentenced to death. Due to outcry by Governments abroad, the
sentence was first commuted to exile, and, shortly afterwards,
the Rebbe was freed.
Realistically, was the Previous Rebbes attitude not
foolhardy? He knew that, on the face of it, these three men
held his life in their hands. Would it not have been better
to be more conciliatory? To, perhaps, compromise a little?
Not to buck the establishment? To live to fight another day?
Now, over 70 years later, with 20/20 hindsight, one may evaluate
and answer these questions.
The Previous Rebbe was a realist: an optimist with experience.
His optimism lay in his bitochen.
He had perfect faith. In his own words on a previous occasion,
he had but one G-d and two worlds [this and the world
to come] and could not be intimidated by those who
had many gods and but one world.† And his experience
told him that one could not cede compromises or do deals with
those who seek to eliminate you. By doing so one only helps
fulfill their agenda: one becomes their agent in destroying
what they seek to destroy. His experience also told him that
in the preceding millennia, empires greater than the USSR
had sought to wipe out the Jewish Nation and had failed: they
had perished and the Jewish People had survived.
One chapter ended but the story continued. The Previous Rebbe
left Soviet Russia soon after this, but his Chassidim, under
pain of death, continued his work and kept the flame of Yiddishkeit
there alight and alive. The Rebbe moved first to Riga and
then to Warsaw where he experienced the horrors of the Nazi
onslaught. Finally, he moved to the USA where he regrouped.
He, and later his son-in-law and successor, enthused and inspired
thousands of young men and women, many from secular and assimilated
backgrounds, with their vision, purpose and leadership to
help revitalize the Jewish condition throughout the world
following the Second World War and the holocaust.
The USSR has disintegrated but the teaching and practice
of Judaism there is once again thriving. On the foundations
laid by his predecessor, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Schneerson, has built an empire that continues to grow, reaching
out to tens of thousands of Jews worldwide. It is truly an
Empire on which the sun never sets, an empire
built not on fear and force but on love and enlightenment,
not on compromise but on compassion.
In doing so, a new word has been added to the English language
and to the lexicon of the world: Outreach. Translated into
as many languages as exist, it connotes love, sacrifice of
self, kindness and caring.
Unfortunately, though, even with perfect hindsight, there
are those who still do not perceive the picture clearly. They
are constantly looking over their shoulders to see what the
world is saying. They are unable to discern the difference
between what is real and what is ephemeral, fantasy or fad.
Compare this with the Torah perspective, the Rebbes
perspective: Look straight ahead, keep our eyes firmly on
the road leading to the ultimate goal, never deviating to
the left or right. Then, it is attainable and imminent. Which
way is right? Examine the facts! Be realistic!
On Feats and Feet
Amongst chassidim there were two dominant types: intellectuals
(maskilim), who would spend hours contemplating the
subtleties of chassidic thought; and servers (ovdim),
who put the greater emphasis on their service of the Almighty,
laboring to refine their character and perfect their behavior.
On one occasion, Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch said:
A maskil walks on his head; an oved walks with
his feet. Walking on one's head is a spectacular feat. Everyone
notices, and is extremely impressed by the skill displayed
by the walking skull. But if you want to get somewhere, walk
with your feet.
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. This is not to say that because, in our experience,
the processing of a substance produces waste, this is how
it had to be with G-ds processing of creation.
On the contrary: because G-d so chose to create the world,
our reality reflects the dynamics of His creation.
. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
. Talmud, Makkot 24a-b.
. Rashi, Numbers 25:3.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IV, pp. 1327-1328. See Torah
 Bitochen is usually taken to mean a higher form of trust,
belief, faith than that expressed by the word Emunah.
In the words of the Rebbe, as explained once to the writer,
If confronted with a problem, one may have emunah
(faith, trust, etc.) that the Al-mighty will help one
to overcome it. With Bitochen one does not even countenance
that a problem exists; it is only a challenge.