This piece by Rabbi Kahn-Troster, is adapted from The Jew and the Carrot Blog. Rachel is the Director of Education and Outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights North America and a Hazon board member.
In Judaism, confession is a group experience. On Yom Kippur, we stand together as a community and in one voice confess our collective sins before God. Amidst the various lists of transgressions, the Al Chet prayer contains a line that deals with sustenance: Al chet she chatanu liphanecha b’ma’achal u’mishteh, literally: “For the sin we have sinned before You through food and drink.” “Food and drink” is often translated as “gluttony,” which narrows the sin to the idea that we are confessing to having eaten more than our share, wantonly, without thinking. I think the original translation is helpful—we have committed sins through all kinds of acts of eating and drinking, but also through the way our food is produced, distributed, and wasted despite our best efforts to eat ethically through our Hazon CSAs.
First, Al Chet is about responsibility. The formulation “We have sinned” requires us to admit that it’s not the chocolate mousse cake that is sinful. We’re the ones who take food for granted in a time when so many people are food insecure. Perhaps even more important is the reminder that this sin is before God—it’s not just about eating sustainably from our CSAs but about eating sacredly. We have to remember the Jewish version of Michael Pollan’s basic rule about eating: “Eat kosher food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Say a bracha (blessing).” When we forget to acknowledge that our sustenance depends on God and that we are blessed each day to be able to enjoy it, then we have missed the mark. Judaism provides us with ways to reinforce the sacred nature of our food—as my teacher David Kraemer taught me, we say a bracha not to make the food holy but because it is holy to begin with—saying a bracha thanks God for giving us permission to eat it, and only then does it becomes mundane. On Yom Kippur, we acknowledge as a community that we have been blind to God’s blessings.
It’s especially poignant that we recite this line of the Al Chet on a day when we are fasting. I, like I am sure many of you, end up dreaming about bagels and water as the last hours of Yom Kippur tick down. Most days of the year we can commit this sin. On Yom Kippur, we can’t. This offers us a fantastic opportunity to live our lives differently as soon as the holiday is over—we can begin to eat sacredly as we break our fast.
G’mar chatimah tovah—may each of us be inscribed this year for good in the Book of Life.