By Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
Last year, one of my first posts for the Jew and the Carrot was giving up drinking Diet Coke as a way of eating more sacredly and doing a kind of food teshuvah (repentance). After all, Diet Coke does not exactly fit into my overall food values of eating locally and sustainably. It’s essentially water with coloring and caffeine, it creates wasteful packaging, and drinking enough of it each year has the carbon footprint of flying roundtrip from New York to Cleveland. In my attempt to eat mindfully, aware of God’s blessing present in the food before me, Diet Coke seemed like an easy target.
Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew word meaning to return. Repentance is a chance to start over. But part of the teshuvah process is also reviewing how we are doing. We are told by the rabbis that we can’t repent knowing in advance that will plan to do our misdeed again, and yet, we are also human. Despite our best efforts, we slip backwards. We stumble, and once again, as Elul and the season of repentance arrive, we have to ask for forgiveness yet again.
How do I review my year of eating sacredly? I joined a Tuv Ha’aretz CSA. We ate less meat as a family and more of the meat we did eat was grass-fed and sustainably raised. I made a conscious effort reduce our food waste. I educated myself on the true food sins of the world: the infiltration of genetically modified crops into our food system, the ways that those in poor countries raise luxury foods like fish and chocolate for the wealthier nations, and the environmental degradation that leads to global hunger. And for the sin of Diet Coke? I’m drinking some as I write this, slipping backwards to repent another year.
Right now, we’re at the beginning of Elul, and the season of repentance has just begun. I want to move us forward to a prayer we read right before Kol Nidre, on the eve of Yom Kippur. We have had our time to repent; now, our fate hangs in the balance. And before we recite Kol Nidre, in many synagogues we read a prayer called Tefilah Zakkah (A Prayer for Purity). It is a meditation on the actions we abstain from on Yom Kippur, such as eating or drinking, and unlike many prayers, it’s written in the first-person singular, rather than the first person plural. The prayer is an acknowledgement of the physical nature of humanity, and how we often abuse the gifts of our body, rather than using them for good. It begins with the stark statement: “Creator, is there a person anywhere who never sins? I am but flesh and blood, often yielding to temptation; I am human, often torn by conflicts.”
The plaintive cry of the author echoes my frustrations when I try to eat sacredly or mindfully. Does that box of macaroni and cheese really make a difference in the world? Is it really less holy for me not to buy a fair trade banana? Is a consumer response (Organic Diet Coke?) really doing teshuvah?
But the point of this prayer is to teach us that repentance is more than just worrying about the temptations of our individual actions. Rather, we have sinned by misusing the gifts God has given us, the gifts of the physical bodies we inhabit. At the end of the prayer, we ask once again learn the holiness of our bodies. It is in re-discovering that holiness that we learn to improve our actions, rather than focusing on individual slips.
In learning to eat sacredly and do teshuvah over our eating, we can incorporate this lesson of rediscovering holiness: not just of our bodies, but of the food we eat and the land that grows it. That is what we have forgotten in eating mindlessly. We have to ask ourselves how we can learn to restore holiness to our eating, elevating our eating beyond good and bad foods, or a purely consumer response. Holy eating makes us look beyond ourselves, and ask how we can restore God’s gift of sacred food to everyone on Earth: it should not be an elite privilege.
As I hear the shofar each morning this month calling me to teshuvah, I am going worry a little less about the Diet Coke sitting in my fridge. But I am going to review how I did in ensuring that God’s blessing of sustenance was not abused. It will be an important challenge to review next year.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is Director of Education and Outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She is a contributor to The Jew and The Carrot, and serves on the board of Hazon.