“O taste and see that the Lord is good…”
“Torah is called ‘מזון’ (Mazon). It’s called ‘food…’ My blessing for all of us [is] that we experience within and beyond how sweet and good [Torah] tastes. Sometimes we like things to taste salty also and pungent and sour. There’s enough of all the tastes in the Torah.”
“Furthermore, with regard to a forbidden food that became mixed with a permitted food, Rabbi Abbahu says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: In any case where the flavor and substance of the forbidden food are perceptible in the mixture, the mixture is forbidden…But… if the forbidden food amplified the flavor of the permitted food to its detriment, it is permitted.
“This is why the maror (bitter herbs eaten at Pesach) is so important. We must sense the bitterness of slavery to really taste the joy of freedom. Freedom is meaningless if one has never felt confined.”
Writing about taste and food after my first experience of a תענית (Ta’anit)/Major Fast in Judaism seems somewhat ironic. Nevertheless, I start with Tisha B’Av.
The 9th of Av is said to be the saddest day in the Jewish Calendar, a time to traditionally recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the resulting diaspora(s) of the Jews. However, there are other calamities mourned as well.
During my practice (along with fasting, not listening to music or even brushing my teeth for the 24-hour period), I watched the first hour and half of Shoah, a nine-hour documentary of first-hand accounts of The Holocaust. While 90 minutes is not much, the taste was enough to draw tears (and I do plan to return to the rest). However, I also sought out new information about other atrocities, such as The Rwandan Genocide and the current Russian War against Ukraine.
After the sunset, I remember my first bite of something sweet, Baruch HaShem, and how different it was, even just going without for such a paltry time. There was delight in the nourishment, but, and appropriately so, a greater sense of grief over how many people in the world do not even have the option of going without food. They either have to get by on whatever is available, whenever it is available, or, Baruch Dayan HaEmet, they have nothing to eat at all.
Do I write this in attempt at virtue signaling? Rachamana Litzian, I am certain on some level I most certainly do, because we are all guilty of pride. However, with the help of Adonai, perhaps I hope to go deeper than this.
The flavors and experiences of Judaism during my still-nascent journey into Conversion have certainly been more diverse than I could have imagined. There have been more questions than answers to say the very least. Interestingly enough, as Rebbe Yiscah pointed out in class, the verb טַעֲמ֣וּ/Taste from Psalm 34 goes beyond just the act of physical sensation to encompass a broader sense of discernment as well:
טַֽעַם m.n. 1 taste, flavor. 2 judgment, discretion, discernment. 3 decree, command (after Akka. ṭēmu, ‘royal decree’). PBH 4 reason, cause. PBH 5 accent. [From טעם. cp. BAram. טְעֵם and טַעַם (= taste, judgment, command), Aram. טַעְמָא (= taste, reason, cause, argument; sense), Syr. טְעֵם, טַעְמָא (= taste; perception, discernment, discretion). cp. טַעְמָא.]
As such, when I reflect on the question she asked during the final session of “Receiving the Torah Afresh Everyday” (which came two days after Tisha B’Av 5782 ended), I suppose this is where my takeaway lies—in order to know we must experience and then use the wisdom gained to become more of who we could be.
While I am certain far more learned חכמים/Hachamim would say the Hebrew equivalent of “duh,” I imagine one of the many points of the תענית is to remind us of all we have by showing us, in a very limited and privileged way, what it is like to be without it. This, Im Yirtzeh HaShem, can lead to many things: gratitude, humility, compassion, and perhaps most importantly a reminder of how deeply remains the call to Tikkun Olam.
As Elul approaches, Adonai asks us to seek forgiveness from anyone we have wronged in the past and make as much amends as possible before the New Year. For that month, I have much work to do, and while the moral imperative is at the center, I also find thankfulness—for the love of God; for the gift of forgiveness; for the opportunity to be a part of repairing the world…
This taste is sweet / טוב in my mouth, especially because the bitterness of evil in the world and my own complacency towards it remains in the background. And, may it ever remain.
Perhaps the quote from Rabbi Yohanan is a stretch here—the flogging especially—but I think it captures what the lesson for me of this process has been. Often, the taste of bitterness from the evils we have committed and/or permitted do overtake the sweetness we can know of a righteous life. Yet, Baruch HaShem, this only makes the sweetness that comes from acts of mercy both given and bestowed all the sweeter and more apparent when they arrive. (It also may move us to chase the goodness all the more.)
We must know loss to have compassion for those in the midst of grief.
We must know hunger to be authentically motivated to feed the starving.
We must know the hate in our own souls to embody what is really love.
Even as Rebbe Yiscah’s class has come to close (with much more of her offerings to come at AJS), so I hope this takeaway would be pleasing to her as my teacher and most importantly to Adonai, my Maker and the Source of Sweetness.
Thank you to Rebbe Yiscah, Rebbe Daniel, and everyone at AJS for all the teachings they share. Adonai bless the work of your hands.