Yearly Yearning: Another look at Hunger in Jewish Life

To live as a Jew means that we do not just eat to live. And at the same time, we do not simply live to eat. We have a complicated and nuanced relationship with food. We center Jewish moments around particular foods: from honey dripping on apples on Rosh HaShanah, to the drops of it on our first approach to Jewish text, to salt on the challah on Shabbat, to debating the merits of a hamantaschen vs latkes, our culture is replete with a cornucopia of flavors. We feast to celebrate our survival and success. We fast to remind ourselves of past troubles, purify our inner being and to cement our relationship with God. We bless what we’re going to eat and express gratitude for what we have eaten. Food bonds us to our family, friends and faith.

With the advent of the month of Elul we start our preparations for the High Holidays. Part of our preparation is, not surprisingly, around food. While we might spend some time thinking about the symbolic foods we will have at our Rosh Hashanah table, or the best brisket recipe to use, fasting on Yom Kippur takes center stage. Are we going to decaffeinate to avoid the headache? How hungry will we be? What is the best thing to eat to prepare for the fast? As much as we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we are already thinking, “What will I break the fast with this year?” 

While global poverty, food insecurity and urban deserts are problems that need to be addressed, each of our personal hungers are never fully resolved. The nature of our being means that we are only sated for a limited time. We will always need more. Maybe reading all these words about food are even making you feel a little peckish!

Similar to fear and pain, hunger is an essential warning sign. The sensation of wanting nourishment reminds us of the fragility of our bodies, and our ongoing need for physical sustenance. This feeling helps us live. What about the other things that make us hungry? We crave things beyond just food — be it love, connection, sleep, wisdom or meaning. What are the other yearnings that inspire us and plague us?

The two of us, a rabbi and a psychologist, started to wonder about this broader issue of what are we yearning for. The research has pointed out that many of us identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Many are disappointed in the offerings of traditional religious practice. Many of us are seekers who do not yet know what we are seeking. What do we yearn for? How might Jewish professionals and innovators respond to the needs and hungers of those who are dissatisfied with our traditional offerings?

The prophet Amos reminds us that while we may yearn for food and water, a time is coming when people will hunger for meaning in their lives. (Amos 8:11). Maybe that time is now? We have the opportunity to use this time in Elul to prepare for the High Holidays. And not just getting ready for the physical fast, but we also have the opportunity to open ourselves up and explore our souls. Working through the often closely linked lenses of psychology and Judaism, we drafted a resource to assist Jewish organizations, congregations and any gatherings of Jews in a search for meaning that is relevant both to this time in our history and the Jewish calendar. Please share it with people. We would love your comments and suggestions. We also want to invite you to join in this exploration, please share your yearnings with others in the comments. Maybe our shared yearnings will give added meaning to both our communal and our personal yearly experience of the High Holidays.

*Originally published in eJp with Betsy Stone who is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her previous eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.

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