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I want candy

S2
E19
12mins

Ever find yourself powerless in front of a big bowl of candy? Rabbi Josh Feigelson draws parallels between food, willpower and broader Jewish teachings on mindfulness and consumption. He guides listeners through a mindful eating exercise, emphasizing the importance of presence and appreciation in everyday acts like eating.

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My first job out of rabbinical school was at Northwestern University.

I was the Hillel rabbi. I loved so many things about that job. I met tons of amazing students and faculty. I felt like I was always learning something new.

Baskets of candy (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

No two days were ever the same. And, even when things might have gotten difficult — like the one year on Yom Kippur when white supremacists arrived to hurl antisemitic insults at people on their way to services — I felt like I was making a big difference.

But if you want to know the biggest challenge I faced as a Hillel rabbi, I will tell you: It had nothing to do with antisemitism, or Israel politics, or anything like that. No, my biggest challenge at Hillel was candy. 

Why candy? Because it was always around. Like every student-serving organization, Hillel attracts people with free food.

And attractive free food for the undergraduate set is not crudite — it’s sweet, unhealthy, and offered in copious amounts.

During their meetings at Hillel, student groups would have M&Ms and mini Hershey bars and Jolly Ranchers and God knows what else. And besides the candy, there were desserts: cookies, cake, ice cream… 

For me, the presence of all this yumminess presented a real challenge. Every time I would walk through the Hillel lobby, I’d find myself heading over to the bowl of M&Ms or the plate of cookies and nibbling one, or two, or ten.

And I was fully aware of the fact that I didn’t want to be eating all this sugar — that it wasn’t good for me, that this was mindless eating. Yet I just seemed unable to stop myself.

So then I hit on an idea. Most of this candy contained milk. And since I have kept kosher my whole life, I have a deeply ingrained practice of not eating anything that contains dairy products for six hours after I’ve eaten meat.

It’s one of the kosher rules that I grew up with. So my brilliant idea was that I would go to the kosher dining hall on campus and eat meat for lunch.

Then, when I came back to Hillel and saw those delicious dairy chocolates on the counter, I could walk right past them and say, “Not today, candy. Not today.”

And I seriously did this, and it seriously worked.

But, of course, as you’ve figured out, this is insane. Because willpower is willpower, right? Hypothetically, the willpower that enabled me to say, “You ate meat, so you can’t eat the candy” was the same willpower I wanted to use to simply say, “Whether or not you ate meat, just don’t eat the candy.”

But, for some bizarre reason, when I tried to just lean on the willpower alone, that wasn’t enough. I was only able to access that willpower when it was couched as a kosher law. As I said, bonkers — but true.

The Torah portion of Emor details a lot of commandments for the ancient priests — many of which involve when and where they could eat.

They’re not the rules of kashrut (these are detailed elsewhere), but they’re very much related — rules like, if a priest comes into contact with a dead body, he has to take a ritual bath, and he can’t eat the special food reserved for the priests until the sun sets.

These aren’t literally applicable to us today for a lot of reasons. But, like kashrut, I think they reflect something deep and profound about eating — and that’s to be mindful.

One of the premises of this whole show is that Judaism, properly understood, is a mindfulness practice. We see that with Shabbat. We see it with lots of the ethical commandments. And, on the most day-to-day level, we see it with how the Torah approaches eating.

Because eating is something we have to do every day. It’s like breathing — a biological necessity that we can do with or without awareness.

Just like we breathe whether or not we are focused on our breathing, we often eat whether or not we’re focused on our eating.

And that means that while we can eat mindlessly, we can also choose to eat mindfully — to be present and aware of what goes into our mouths, to delight in it, to appreciate it, to experience it fully. 

I think that’s what the Torah is trying to get us to do. And I think that today, when consumption of all kinds — not just food — is rampant, practicing mindful eating and mindful consumption is something I desperately want and need to do. I imagine the same may be true for you too. 

So here’s a classic mindful eating practice to try. To do it, you’ll need five minutes and a box of raisins. Or, more accurately, a single raisin. Yes, one.

Okay, first, take a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb.

Take time to really focus on it; gaze at the raisin with care and full attention — imagine that you’ve just dropped in from Mars and have never seen an object like this before in your life.

Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the highlights where the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges, and any unique features. 

Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring its texture. Maybe do this with your eyes closed if that enhances your sense of touch.

Hold the raisin under your nose. With each inhalation, take in any smell, aroma, or fragrance that may arise. As you do this, notice anything interesting that may be happening in your mouth or stomach.

Now slowly bring the raisin up to your lips, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it.

Notice any sensations of wonder or gratitude within you. With awareness and intention, recite the blessing for eating a raisin:

Blessed are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

Gently place the raisin in your mouth; without chewing, noticing how it gets into your mouth in the first place. Spend a few moments focusing on the sensations of having it in your mouth, exploring it with your tongue.

When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin, noticing how and where it needs to be for chewing. Then, very consciously, take one or two bites into it and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanate from it as you continue chewing. Without swallowing yet, notice the bare sensations of taste and texture in your mouth and how these may change over time, moment by moment. Also pay attention to any changes in the object itself.

When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you actually swallow the raisin.

See if you can feel what is left of the raisin moving down into your stomach, and sense how your body as a whole is feeling after you have completed this exercise.

And now consider: the raisin was once in your hand, separate from you. Now it is in your stomach. Is the raisin “you” now? Was it “not you” when you held it in your hand? Where did that raisin come from to be in your hand, and where does it go once it is in you? What is the connection between the “you” who has consumed the raisin, the raisin that you consumed, the place from which it came, the soil from which it grew, the rain which watered it, the sun which shone on it (and dried it)? How might the consciousness you have of this connection “raise” the raisin to its root? How might the consciousness you have of raising the raisin to its root raise you as well? How, if at all, do you imagine this consciousness changes you, and then the world?

With awareness and intention, say the short blessing that may be recited after eating any food:

Blessed are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who creates a myriad of creatures and their needs; and for all that you have created that sustains the life of every living thing. Blessed is the life force of all worlds. 

Wow. 

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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