Planting Seeds of Tikkun

This piece by Hazon Board Member Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein was originally delivered as a Shabbat sermon on February 4th at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

As I prepared to speak about Tu B’Shvat, I  came upon the writings of Rav Tzadok HaKohen, a 19th century Chassidic Rebbe, through the lovely work of a scholar named Sarah Schneider. Humanity’s first sin, according to Rav Tzadok HaKohen, was Adam and Eve’s eating without the right intention. The Tree of Knowledge was not a tree, or a food or a thing at all. It was a way of eating. Rav Tzadok HaKohen teaches that whenever we mindlessly grab pleasure from the world, we fall spiritually, and it is as if we are eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

What does it mean to grab pleasure, Schneider asks? It means to become so distracted by the pleasure of consumption that we forget that we are receiving a gift from our Creator. We take the gifts and leave the Giver behind.

As a result of this first sin, the yeitzer hara (the inclinations to do bad) entered each of us and still challenges us constantly with obstacles as we strive to grow spiritually. Since our first sin was unholy eating, however, Schneider argues that only its opposite can rectify it. Everything that happens and has happened in our world moves us toward one goal: to learn to “eat” in holiness. The world’s temptations and distractions must not divert our attention from our Source, not even for a moment.

The Sefer Yetzira, the world’s oldest work of Kabbalah, states that the Hebrew month of Shvat is a time when there is a unique opportunity to heal our relationship with food and with our eating in general, whether it be material or metaphorical consumption. And while we should endeavor to transform and heal our eating at every meal of every month of the year, we can take advantage of Tu B’shvat as an auspicious time to work on consuming in the right way, with absolute mindfulness.

Tu B’Shvat is the ultimate low-impact, ecological holiday. During the seder, we eat nothing animal-based.  It’s the “beyond-vegan” holiday…we eat fruit and nuts, foods that don’t even involve destruction of the plant that bore it.  Nothing is pulled from the roots. The Tu B’Shvat seder reminds us very plainly to be compassionate and to honor our reciprocal relationship with the plant and animal world.

Then we eat the many fruits associated with the Tree of Knowledge on Tu B’Shvat–and do so with brachot, blessings, and with a consciousness of our Creator–that in itself is a tikkun, a healing, of what happened in Gan Eden. For me, Tu B’Shvat centers very much on the concept of tikkun—spiritual tikkun but also physical tikkun, communal tikkun, ecological tikkun, and tikkun olam, healing the world.  Through our actions and our kavanah, intention, we can bring a powerful healing to that First Sin, thought to be the root of all imbalance in the universe.  We create for ourselves “the opportunity to partake of and enjoy the pleasures of this world without being consumed by them.”

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking right now: Hey, this all sounds great.  I’m all for partaking of the pleasures of eating without being consumed by them. Where do I sign up?

This topic, my life as a Jew in relation to food, always brings to mind the night I first met my husband, Avni, at the beginning of my junior year of college. We were introduced by a mutual friend at a Friday night oneg that I bravely attended, having just become observant.  The so-called Shabbat dinner at this oneg (gathering) turned out to be deli. Just. Deli. There was probably some coleslaw swimming in mayonnaise.  Even the pickles were schvach (underwhelming).  Unfortunately for me—or maybe fortunately–I was a vegetarian in those days.  So, as Avni filled his plate with meat–the salami, pastrami, the roll–I picked out wilted pieces of chicory, and a few cherry tomatoes and black olives from the platters.  When I sat down, Avni peered at my plate quizzically and queried why I wasn’t eating anything.  I explained that I was a vegetarian. With some horror, he replied: “So you can only eat the GARNISH?”

We both gained insight into our own preconceptions about eating—and about each other–on that long ago day at Columbia.  And since then, we’ve both made compromises.  He eventually ate more of the so-called garnish, and at a much later point, I began to eat some meat.

But as someone who eats whole foods, I still sometimes feel like I’m relegated to the “garnish,” at least figuratively. Why? After all, these days, those of us who keep kosher have more variety available to us than ever before. It was a big day when kosher kids could set aside the Hydrox and dig into the Oreos, right? And there have been many such days.  According to Kashrus Magazine, the demand for kosher certification has grown such that the 18 kosher certifying rabbis and agencies in 1981 grew to about 1000 by early 2009.

The growth in kosher certification is mainly because we as a community are eating more processed food. By definition, eating rocessed food means we no longer can look at a food item and have any expectation that we know what’s in it or how it was made. Yes, certain whole foods require hashgacha (certification), like wine, meat, or cheese. But now food has become so adulterated with strange additives, including beautiful food dyes made from insects, that meticulous supervision is necessary to make sure foods previously taken for granted to be kosher actually ARE kosher.

There was once a time in the Jewish community when we eschewed foods like Wonder Bread and instead prized home-cooked food.  Nowadays, my mother’s generation jokes about schmaltz being unhealthy?  Schmaltz doesn’t hold a candle to a lot of the stuff we buy off of the shelves of our own kosher supermarkets. Unfortunately, contrary to perceptions of the majority of people who seek out and purchase kosher food—who are non-Jews, by the way—kosher processed food is NOT healthier or more ecological.

The food patterns of the Jewish community truly have shifted over the past several decades.  On the one hand, the Jewish community, along with immigrant communites, has remained well-versed in cooking.  Between Shabbat and holidays and attempts at creative kugel recipes, this community can be intrepid in the kitchen.   I’d compare this to many families in my practice who feed their children only processed and take-out foods, and after listening to my recommendations, answer: “Doctor, we agree with everything you say, but this is how we grew up eating.  We don’t know how to cook.”  They are really starting from scratch.

On the other hand, the Jewish community has lost ground when it comes to eating a traditional, whole foods diet. One major and disturbing way that we’ve moved to processed food has been driven by our very commitment to kashrut.  As lucky as we are to have hashgacha and a broader range of choices, homemade is now considered inferior to processed foods due to kosher certification, particularly when homemade in someone else’s home.  After all, we don’t know what people might do in their kitchens, what hashgachas they might consider acceptable or even whether they keep kosher at all.  Along with the convenience factor, because let’s face it, we are all short on time, maybe it’s a relief that we as parents or simply as busy people can just purchase something rather than making it from scratch.  How often have we been told—and even been relieved to hear—that only processed products with hashgacha can be used?  Bake sales, kosher events and even kiddushes are often stocked mainly with Entenmann’s and Diet Coke. Often, we have to go out of our way to even find water to drink. I have to ask—why does being kosher have to trump eating healthy food?

So this is a question: Why do I care? Why do I think that what we eat matters?

Let me share a personal experience with you.  Each of us has our own set of epiphanies when it comes to tikkun.  A major one for me was finding tikkun through food. Before I ever found it through being a physician—because food and nutrition is not something we learn very much about during medical training–I first found it in my role as a parent. On his first birthday, one of my children developed chronic asthma, and was constantly being prescribed antibiotics, steroids and nebulizers by our pediatrician.  It got worse and worse.  Doctor after doctor had no answer for me on how to stop this process, until I realized no one had an answer. I finally determined on my own that he was allergic to soy.  Within a week of stopping all soy, we no longer needed medications after nearly constant dependence for 10 straight months.  At that point, he also had a language explosion and experienced a huge developmental leap.  The difference between having a chronically sick child and a thriving child–based entirely on the presence or absence of a food in his diet–certainly woke me up to the connection between food and health in a way that nothing else could have.

We don’t know why my son was so reactive to soy—whether it was due to the high pesticide use on the crop, or the fact that most soy is genetically modified which can make it more allergenic, or if it was just because soy itself can be quite allergenic in an already reactive immune system.  But even learning to ask these questions took tremendous research.

Wendell Berry wrote: “People are fed by the food industry which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry which pays no attention to food.”  At that point, I began to investigate where my food came from. And once I scratched the surface, I fell into the abyss.

First of all, I noticed that soy was in everything.  As I read labels out of necessity, I noted that there were lots of substances in my food that weren’t food.  In fact, they weren’t anything I recognized, so I researched them in the scientific literature. The more I read, the more I realized I didn’t want to consume them. I didn’t want my kids to consume them.  I advised patients to avoid them, too, and noticed that many chronic and even intractable conditions improved in objective ways.

I began to read about pesticides and chemical fertilizer—why we started to use them, what they were made out of, the frightening things that they are doing to animals, to bees, to children’s health, and to my health. I read about why monocropping and large-scale agriculture require pesticides and how diverse planting using permaculture methods could preclude the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizer.

I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and learned more than ever about the problems with meat. Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests. To translate the energy-using demand of meat production into understandable terms, two geophysicists calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan like a Camry to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study out of Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles. Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens despite the inherent inefficiencies: 2-5 times more grain is required to produce the same amount of ingestible calories through meat as through direct consumption of grain—and it is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.

The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the US — much of which now serves this demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the EPA. Because the stomachs of cattle are meant to digest grass, not grain, cattle raised industrially thrive only in the sense that they gain weight quickly. Though cattle could be removed from their natural environment to the “efficient” environment of mass confinement and slaughter, their diet causes health problems requiring routine administration of antibiotics, such that antibiotic-resistant bacteria have grown to threaten antibiotic effectiveness in people. Livestock is given hormones to grow quickly, which we ingest when we eat the meat. I now knew that animals weren’t just calmly munching grass in idyllic pasture until they became our hamburgers or chicken cutlets.

Now, as I started to practice pediatric neurology out in the world when I finished my fellowship, how could I not use this knowledge to benefit my patients?  At that point, I discovered that my training had not taught me what I had hoped about tikkun.  I had learned about sickness, diagnosis and treatments–mostly pharmacological—that sometimes helped, sometimes didn’t, sometimes caused side effects, and rarely seemed to eliminate the problem.  B”H (God willing), many people do find tikkun in this approach. It was no longer enough for me. There were too many people I couldn’t help, and now I knew about other possibilities.   I had to go on my own journey of discovery.  What I learned on this journey is that when it comes to tikkun, physical and spiritual health is intimately connected to the natural world.   I’ve been shocked and blessed to see so many children and adult patients improve in transformative ways after changing their diets, reducing sugar, increasing healthy fats and proteins, eliminating food additives and preservatives, reducing exposures to toxins, and using botanicals to enhance their health.

By bearing witness to profound physical tikkun, I have become more receptive to all the blessings in my life. I better see with eyes that are attuned to the miraculous. This process grew into spiritual tikkun for me.  Brachot beget brachot. Tikkun begets tikkun.

At a certain point in time, I wanted to engage in tikkun on more than a personal or even professional level.  For instance, not eating meat myself didn’t seem like enough—and though I thought people generally should eat less meat, I wanted healthy and ecologically sound alternatives for people who did.

I found farmers who raised cattle, but only those who raised cattle on pasture, without pesticides, without genetically-modified corn or soy…cattle who were rotated from section to section of the farm so the land could recover in between…cattle who lived with their own young, humanely, and who weren’t administered routine antibiotics or hormones.  I found a slaughterhouse that would commit to compassionate, upright kosher slaughter.  I found a supervising Rabbi and a butcher.  (P.S. This was not an quick or easy process).  But each person who was involved in this project was passionate about his or her part.  I called this project: Mitzvah Meat.  I attended each of the slaughters, and on some occasions, participated in the process of skinning, deveining, soaking and salting.

I had thought that I wouldn’t be able to eat the meat from these cows; after all, as a doctor my mandate was to promote life, not to willfully hasten death. I had thought that this project would be to create an option for others who wanted grass-fed meat that was kind to the environment and kind to the animals. Sometimes, though, we discover tikkun where we don’t expect it.  I knew that these animals lived and died in as humane and as compassionate a way as I could imagine. Somehow, being present in the process and engaged to such a great degree clarified for me the sacred relationship that we have with an animal when it gives its life to sustain our own.  This meat felt infused with Hashem. I ate and appreciated that meat in an authentic way that I never could have before.

As for other food, I learned further that an estimated 19 percent of total energy used in the US is taken up in the production and supply of food. This mostly comes from non-renewable energy sources which are in short supply. I read a study from Cornell University, which set out strategies to cut fossil energy fuel use in the food system by as much as 50 percent.

Their first suggestion? That individuals eat less, especially considering that the average American consumes over 3,700 calories a day, 1200-1500 calories more than recommended. Second suggestion: the average American could have a massive impact on fuel consumption and on his or her health by reducing junk food intake and converting to diets lower in meat. As we now know, factory-raised animal products and processed foods use more energy than that used to produce staple foods such as grains, fruits and vegetables. Third: the authors suggest that agriculture moves towards more traditional, organic farming methods–reducing pesticide use, increasing use of manure, cover crops and crop rotations.  Finally, they suggest that the food industry transforms food processing, packaging and distribution.

The authors concluded the most dramatic reduction in energy used for food processing would come about if consumers simply reduced their demand for highly processed foods.  Processed food in the US travels an average of 2,400 km before it is consumed–never mind the literal and figurative price we pay in our health. (Pimentel et al. Reducing Energy Inputs in the US Food System. Human Ecology, 2008). Lest we despair that the above changes could never happen, remember that consumers have control, simply by reducing or creating demand. No one wants to make what we won’t buy.  We vote with our dollars.

In any case, I now knew that I had to grow some of my own food.  We excavated a green space behind my office to grow a farm, with chickens for eggs, bees for pollination and  honey, berries, medicinal herbs, and all kinds of organic fruits and vegetables.   We’ve had two years now of bumper crops of  food that we grew with our own hands and eggs from chickens that we raised from chicks.  Growing our own food is among the most primal relationships that we have with nature and with God.   For the last two years, my life and our life as a family has revolved around rainfall—which meant that I didn’t have to water the garden…temperature—when we lost a chicken due heat exhaustion…and hurricaines—with desperate questions of “Should we bring the chickens into my office?” (We didn’t).  I was floored when I realized that I had agreed to travel to speak at a conference during planting season, and at another conference during prime harvest time.

Growing food was not easy—for every bit of harvest, we each expended measurable effort.  But what a tremendous connection my family now had to soil fertility, bugs, weather, and food.  After all, as my husband pointed out, the bracha is boray p’ri ha’adamah (on bounty of the earth), not boray p’ri HaFairway.  How much more natural– and meaningful –was it to say a bracha when eating food that we grew ourselves?

Along the way, every day, sometimes many times a day, there have been choices about what I should or shouldn’t eat, how I should or shouldn’t feed my family.  There are considerations of cost, of convenience. And of making other people uncomfortable.  I was floored when a dear friend came to my home for Shabbat with a cantelope, apologizing: “I’m really sorry, It’s not organic.” And there are considerations of fitting in.  My husband once said to me: “Now we are one of THOSE families.”

My kids see that they eat differently from most other kids.  My 9 year-old is ambivalent: He once volunteered on the way home from a playdate that when he grows up, he plans to feed his kids very healthy…but maybe a little less healthy than I do.  On the other hand, he is also the one who occasionally invents games at our dinner table like: “How do you like kale best: kale in soup or juicy kale with beans?”

My goal is not to be the “Organic Police.” We are all in this together.  I am on my own journey of tikkun, so I certainly am in no position to judge others nor do I want to.  An enormous part of the journey of tikkun is compassion for ourselves, for each other, and for every living thing. Every once in a while, I don’t plan well and get home from work late with no way I can make something in time—and try to make the healthiest choice possible from a restaurant menu.

I know too that these issues can seem plain overwhelming. Sometimes, we develop eco-fatigue:  Global warming.  Factory farms.  Genetically-modified foods.  High fructose corn syrup.  And we have hurdles: There is so much working against us!  It’s difficult!  It’s expensive!  There’s no time!  I can’t find it! My family hates vegetables!  My kids will STARVE TO DEATH if they don’t eat chicken nuggets! or Nutella! or Oreo Yo-crunch!  Acknowledge these challenges.  Many are valid. Still, since we ate from the Tree of Knowledge, our yeitzer hara ALWAYS has a long list ready of why we can’t change.

Perhaps we can use the period around Tu B’Shvat to find a place of strength in ourselves.  Tehillim 126 states “They that sow in tears reap in joy.”  Yes, this process can be discouraging. When I think about it, though, everything I’ve ever done in my life that was worthwhile has cost me tears at one point or another.  When we put in the effort it takes to transform— we sow in tears—but what will reap? Tikkun. Joy. And fresh organic vegetables.

This is a process that evolves.  A year or so ago, my husband was reminiscing about a weekend that we spent at a bed and breakfast before we had children.   “Do you remember that weekend we spent in Mystic, CT?” he asked.  “Of course,” I said.  “Do you remember how we stopped at this convenience store while we were filling up the car with gas on the way back?”  “Sure,” I answered.  “And do you remember how we bought a BIG box of Corn Pops and ate most of it on the ride back?” he asked.  “Um… Kind of,” I replied skeptically.  “Yeah,” he said wistfully.  “That would never happen now.”

For some people, everything I’ve discussed today may be new.  For others, it is old news. I respectfully ask you: Push your boundaries.  Whatever you’re doing, whatever feels comfortable right now–think about what steps you can take to bring it to a new level. Depending on where you are, consider any of the following suggestions:

  1. Just think about where supermarket food comes from.
  2. Make the decision to read the ingredients of every food you eat.  Make sure that you recognize everything on the label as something you’d be fine with eating individually, or that they could be in your cabinet if you were baking or cooking.
  3. Buy foods that don’t require labels, wrappers or hashgacha.
  4. Buy more organic products.  They start with a 9 on their CPU codes.
  5. Buy a share at a CSA—people are signing up now at HIR (Hebrew Institute of Riverdale)!
  6. Join the organic dry-goods buying club we are starting.
  7. Grow food—in an outdoor garden if you have a house, or indoors if you don’t. Herbs or sprouts are nutrient-dense, detoxifying and pretty fool-proof for indoors. Or come join our efforts on our urban farm! We need volunteers.
  8. Shop at Farmer’s Markets—In New York, The Riverdale Y Sunday Market is beginning again in May, and there are year-round markets on the Upper West Side and Union Square, among others.
  9. Eat less meat.  Try meatless Mondays.  Support grass-fed or organic efforts whenever possible.
  10. Compost—either outdoors or vermicompost indoors.
  11. Reuse items, like bags.
  12. Recycle and buy recycled products, which helps to reduce incinerating toxic substances that affect our health.

Finally, I just want to add that I am so proud of how far our shul has come as far as food is concerned.  Once proud hosts of Entenmann’s kiddushes with only bottles of soda to drink, we now have baby carrots, platters of fruit, pitchers of water, and hummus as healthy choices available for our shul members to eat.  How can we as a community push our boundaries this Tu B’Shevat? As Jews, we come together over food in so many ways.  I propose that we take more opportunities to cook together in the shul kitchen, with a hired mashgiach to oversee if necessary, rather than bringing in exclusively prepared or processed food. Let’s reclaim our relationship with food, and cook together as a community.

Many people on Tu B’Shvat plant something—often a tree.  I consider that right now, together, we are each planting seeds of change in ourselves—and I hope that each of these seeds will sprout, grow, and eventually blossom and fruit into actions that will produce innumerable more seeds of tikkun.

Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein is an integrative pediatric neurologist board-certified in adult and child neurology as well as pediatrics. Following her undergraduate training at Columbia College, she graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine with the Edward Padow Award for Excellence in Pediatrics as well as a Special Distinction in Research for her work in autism.