Food plays a significant role in Judaism.
Whether it is the foods that we are required to eat (e.g., matzah and maror on Passover), or foods that are customary to eat (e.g., latkes on Chanukah and cholent on Shabbos), in Judaism, many a morsel has a meaning.
But so does refraining from eating.
One unique Torah commandment regarding food is the prohibition against consuming the sciatic nerve (and the fat around it) of even properly slaughtered kosher animals. Although this may not seem like a big deal, it has major ramifications for meat lovers and the kosher meat industry. Technically speaking, filet mignon is no less kosher than any other meat, but it is rare to find a kosher butcher or restaurant that carries it. Removing the sciatic nerve area is complex and, therefore, not cost-effective, so most kosher butchers sell the entire hindquarter of the animal to a non-kosher butcher shop.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded not to eat an animal’s sciatic nerve because our forefather Yaakov was wounded in his sciatic nerve by an enigmatic angel with whom he dueled during one dark night. During this battle, the angel told Yaakov that his name would no longer be Yaakov but Yisroel. The name Yisroel has the connotation of “one who has struggled,” and Yaakov struggled mightily with the angel before he overcame him. When B’nei Yisroel – the Jewish People, the children of “Yisroel” – consciously refrain from eating a good piece of filet mignon, they are reminding themselves of the struggle of their ancestor Yisroel.
Notice that Yaakov was renamed after the struggle, not after the ultimate victory. This is because both the name change and the sciatic nerve prohibition are meant to remind us of a fundamental idea: to be alive is to struggle. To be a Jew is to struggle. Keeping kosher when everyone around us does not is a struggle. Behaving in a way that is moral and right, even when it is unpopular, is a struggle. Struggling through the vicissitudes of life and being proud of our identity as one of B’nei Yisroel, who are connected to Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel), is part of our birthright.
But we don’t struggle for the sake of struggling. The Torah tells us that at the end of the mysterious struggle between Yaakov and the angel, “the sun rose for him,” and Yaakov was healed from his wound. The Rabbis teach that one who struggles at night (analogous to uncertain and difficult times) to do what is right, though they inevitably get hurt in the process, will ultimately merit sunshine and healing. They will be able to see and enjoy the fruits of all the things they accomplished in the process of struggling.
May each of us merit seeing the sunshine we have earned through our struggles, and may the Jewish people collectively see the great day G-d has promised: “A new light will shine over Zion.” May that day come speedily in our days.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.