In this Shabbat sermon, I use the imagery of Parashat Bo to outline some simple dietary rules that can help us live as responsible human tenants rather than as insatiable locusts. In retrospect, I wish I had at least mentioned the perplexing status of [some] locusts as kosher themselves (see Leviticus 11:22).
Make Meals, Not War
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Bo, Egypt is a mess. The Eternal has already sent seven plagues against the stubborn Pharaoh’s house, and God ensures more punishment by continually hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Moses promises the next plague, locusts, if Pharaoh doesn’t allow all the men, women, and children to leave Egypt, and unsurprisingly, Pharaoh holds onto his slaves and invites further disaster into his land. Exodus 10:14-15 reports,
Locusts invaded all the land of Egypt and settled within all the territory of Egypt in a thick mass; never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again. They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened; and they ate up all the grasses of the field and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left, so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt.
Pharaoh begs for forgiveness, and God sends the locusts away – but the darkened land only foreshadows Pharaoh’s continued oppression of the Israelites and the tangible darkness that God will send to herald the death of Egypt’s firstborn. Thus, these locusts are the beginning of the end of Pharaoh’s control over Israel, and they completely ravage Egypt’s food before God empties it of slaves.
Throughout the Bible, locusts are seen as a ravaging scourge that desolates crops and starves populations. I Kings likens locusts to blight and pestilence (v. 37), and the prophet Joel uses an enormous swarm of locusts as a metaphor for the utter destruction of the people and land of Israel. Locusts are the insect most frequently referred to in the Bible, bearing nine distinct names that portray the creature as buzzer (צלצל), cutter (גזם), devourer (חסיל), and hider of the sky (הגב). Deuteronomy (28:38) and Amos (4:9) both depict locusts as divine punishments, focusing on the irreparable damage a locust swarm inflicts on crops. Without a doubt, locusts are among the most chilling and visceral symbols for devastation in the Hebrew Bible.
What makes a locust swarm so pernicious is its insatiable appetite. In modern history, locust swarms up to 40 miles long have been known to consume hundreds of tons of crops, turning fertile farms into barren wastelands. Today, communities defend themselves against locusts by proactively removing millions of eggs from the earth, and when locusts do manage to hatch, armies deploy flamethrowers against them. But in ancient times, a locust swarm was unstoppable until it had eaten everything it could find. Only after depriving a local population of its entire food source it would a swarm of locusts also eventually starve itself.
Clearly, this is abhorrent and terrifying behavior. The Bible recoils at this image of unbridled consumption, vilifying the locust’s indiscriminate eating. Not only does the Torah present such behavior as destructive and horrifying, but in setting up laws for what humans can and cannot eat, the Bible demonstrates that the locust’s appetites are inhuman, or at least are not appropriate behavior for humans under God’s law. In its effort to distance its readers from eating whatever they might want, the Torah sets out the dietary guidelines that we know today as the laws of kashrut or keeping kosher. In an effort to distance Jewish behavior from the wild locusts, the Torah lays out three basic dietary principles. The first major food rule in the Bible is the prohibition against eating blood; Leviticus 17:11 teaches that “the life of flesh is in the blood,” and kosher slaughtering today ensures that no blood remains in the meat. Second, categories of clean and unclean animals are delineated in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, and these lists of animals designate foods such as pork and shellfish as off-limits. Finally, three separate instances in the Torah proclaim, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21); and while the original intent of this repeated phrase is unclear, it has led to the modern kosher practice of separating meat products from dairy products. Thus, with these three basic dietary restrictions—the prohibition against eating blood, the designation of certain clean and unclean animals, and the admonition not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk—the Torah teaches Jews not to be like the locusts that indiscriminately consume everything that rests before them.
While these laws of kashrut remain meaningful and relevant for many Jews worldwide, most liberal Jews understand them differently in today’s environment. At the heart of the Torah’s proscribed diet is eating with intentionality, and even Jews who don’t keep kosher in a traditional sense can uphold this standard of sacred eating. Even here in Steubenville, where kosher meat is virtually impossible to find, we can still choose to eat with respect for ourselves and for the sources of our food. We improve not only our physical health but also our spiritual strength when we live up to our human potential rather than descending to the level of locusts. As one possible guide to such elevated eating, we might learn from Michael Pollan, a contemporary food journalist and author of books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. In Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Pollan suggests three basic principles upon which we can base our eating: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Just as the Torah laid out three basically simple rules to create a meaningful and healthy diet for its adherents, so too does Pollan’s tripartite approach to eating invite us to exercise discretion over what we put into our bodies.
One: Eat food. First and foremost, Pollan distinguishes between “food” and “edible food-like substances.” A food comes from nature and has been eaten for centuries, while edible food-like substances are full of chemicals and preservatives. So much of what we eat today is based on technological manipulations of high-fructose corn syrup and is held together by soy derivatives, and these are the primary ingredients of edible food-like substances. Pollan argues that we should only eat food that we can imagine in its natural state, and he suggests that a substance that is called the same word in any language (like a Big Mac or Cheetos) isn’t real food. Real food, he teaches, is made of ingredients that everyone can pronounce, and most real food contains five ingredients or less. Modern technology has done wonders for travel, medicine, and communication, but the industrialization of our food supply has created a diet that produces an overabundance of diabetes and cancer. People lived for almost all of history on simple foods – Pollan argues that we should continue to do so today.
Two: Mostly plants. Most of you know that I’m a vegetarian; I find that cutting meat out of my diet has made me healthier and more spiritual. However, Pollan notes that people who eat mostly plants as well as some meat are just as healthy as vegetarians, and there are a great number of health benefits to eating choice meat products, especially fish. At the same time, Pollan warns against eating too much meat, noting that the average American eats more than half a pound of meat every day, a habit that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. A rule of thumb that he suggests is swapping portion sizes: instead of an eight-ounce steak with a four-ounce side of vegetables, try an eight-ounce meal of vegetables with a four-ounce side of beef. In general, eating what stands on one leg (plants) is better than what stands on two legs (birds), which is better than what stands on four legs (grazing animals). As well, Pollan reminds us to sweeten our own foods rather than buying artificially-sweetened products such as cereals and soft drinks and to seek out whole grains over than white breads. By committing to eating mostly plants and avoiding too much meat or edible food-like substances, we can do our bodies a tremendous favor.
Three: Not too much. Eat as much junk food as you want, Pollan prescribes … so long as you make it yourself. If you have to unwrap a blueberry muffin from its plastic container, avoid it; but if you want to bake a batch of blueberry muffins in your oven, go for it. Ever since receiving an ice cream maker as an engagement gift, Jessica and I have enjoyed home-made ice cream rather than store-bought – not only does it taste better, but we have definitely come to appreciate our hard-earned dessert much more than we used to! Additionally, Pollan offers some suggestions to combat the rampant overeating that has become part of American culture. “Stop eating before you’re full,” he writes, noting that most non-American cultures value eating until you’re 67-80% full. As well, we would all do well to eat meals rather than snacking on processed food-like substances during the day. One study showed that one-fifth of all American eating takes place in a vehicle, and Pollan argues that real food doesn’t come to you through a car window. Overall, by limiting ourselves and curbing our appetites, we can take pride in a healthy and intentional diet.
Thus, Michael Pollan presents a threefold approach to healthy eating: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Of course, his isn’t the only way to eat healthily, and his seemingly simple rules require a lot of groundwork to achieve. Still, each of us can consider his suggestions and determine whether and how we can make changes in our own eating practices. Striving for dietary goals like Pollan’s three rules can infuse every meal with our personal values, elevating our eating to a new level. The Torah presents us with the terrifying consequences of hordes of locusts ravaging the countryside, and in today’s America, we have to really struggle to avoid mimicking this most deadly of plagues. Many of us eat even when we’re not hungry, and when we are hungry, we reach for whatever’s closest; by slowing down and eating only what we really choose, we can sanctify our every bite according to the highest principles of Torah.
Each of us has the ability to choose what we eat carefully, and both our Torah and our modern consciences urge us to think about what we consume. As food prices rise dangerously high around the world, they remain staggeringly low in the United States, and we are charged with the responsibility to eat wisely when others are not able to do so. We are blessed with an economy of choice, but we forsake this blessing when we elect to eat everything that’s placed before us. As we look forward to a new year with new possibilities, let us commit ourselves to expunging the hungry locust and eating instead with meaning and integrity in every bite.
 The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia.
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