Scattered Personal Thoughts On Cooking, Anxiety and Channukah

Since my years in yeshiva, I have found that, for me, one of the most effective modes of therapy for the times I find myself in a troubled state of mind is cooking myself some dinner. Somehow, during the times in yeshiva that I fell into deep depression, cooking myself a simple dinner of pasta, often served with a sauce of my own invention (butter, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper) that I called “Yeshiva Noodles”, and it would make me feel better. When I went to YU, during dark days in my freshman year, living in a dorm without a kitchen, I found myself lost without my preferred method of coping, and the promise of a kitchen to cook in was one of the motivating factors that led me to move off-campus. During that time, I branched out from Yeshiva Noodles to, well, other kinds of pasta, and then other stuff as I challenged myself more and more. French Toast I recall being one milestone. Simple stuff, but I was having fun. Now that I’m married, I’ve expanded my repertoire considerably, and it still comforts me on the rough days I still have on occasion.
Why does it work? Back in yeshiva,  I figured the reason this worked was “I may be a failure at everything else, but at least I can feed myself”, which I think tells you more about why I kept getting depressed than it does about why that made me feel better. I think it can be partially explained by one peculiar feature of my cooking hobby, which is my stubborn refusal to follow recipes. I love nothing more than just making something up from the ingredients I have at hand. Sure, I look up recipes occasionally just for inspiration and basic direction, ie, what temperature to set the oven to and stuff like that, but I always insist on adding something of my own, and I rarely, if ever, measure out spices to conform to a recipe. (Obviously, baking is not my forte.) Part of this is a healthy non-conformist streak, the same instinct that, for instance, decided that if I was going to throw a baseball, I was going to throw it sidearm because it was weird to throw sidearm.

But part of this, I think, is a rebellion against the rest of my life which is conducted in the opposite way. I constantly worry about whether what I’m doing is objectively correct and good, be it in the papers I write, due to my desire for scholarly objectivity, in my interactions with other people, where my Asperger’s makes ascertaining the “correct” way to interact with people an object of intense scrutiny and investigation, or in my religious life, where the goal is to follow the precepts of a detailed and immense code of law governing every area of one’s life. This is absolutely not necessarily a bad thing. People should absolutely be careful around truth, around other people’s feelings, and about religious law.  But it can be taken too far. It feels like in my life I’m constantly trying to find the right recipe, the absolutely perfect set of ingredients, in order to achieve my desired goals, and I stress constantly about whether I’m going to turn out just like that perfect picture that accompanied the recipe. Often enough, I decide that if I can’t do it perfectly, if I’m just gonna mess everything up, its not even worth trying. But in actual cooking, not in the above metaphor cooking, I get to relax a little bit, even have a little bit of fun, get a little bit daring, try something new, and do the best with what I got. And the only judge is whether the food tastes good in the end, whether I cut the onions exactly to size or not, whether I use the right type of pan and the right type of oil. Sure, those things would help make the food better, and I do watch cooking shows and read food blogs to pick up tricks and tips for making stuff even better. But the point is to make good food, not perfect food, and to take joy in the process, not worry incessantly about the result. And if it turns out bad, its not such a big deal, because I’ll get to try again next time.

Obviously, this attitude cannot be applied in totality to the religious life of an Orthodox Jew. Ours is a religion which cares about the small things, which believes in humanity enough to charge it with living a life totally infused with Godliness. But perhaps we can learn a little bit from it. That we should take joy in the process of being a religious Jew, and not just be worried about the results. That we can take a step back from being crippled by an anxiety over whether we got the recipe exactly right, and do the best job we can with the ingredients we have, and trust that God will appreciate our best attempts, even if they’re not objectively perfect. Perhaps this is one lesson we can take out of Channukah. The Chashmonaim came to the kitchen with a recipe for Menorah Light, serves 8 days, and they only found enough oil for one. They could have just stopped there and decided to order takeout. But they pressed on, because it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has give it its best shot. And God recognized it as good enough.

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Devar Torah Vayishlach (From 2013. The Best One I’ve Ever Written.)

So, my thoughts on this parsha are rather thin, but I’m going to attempt to advance my own understanding of the story of Yaakov and the Man who he wrestles with. It’s probably more my peshat than peshat, but sometimes, that isn’t a bad thing.

The story starts with Yaakov left alone. Suddenly, a man appears out of nowhere, and wrestles with him, until dawn. We are given no reason for this assault. We have no idea who this person is (and the midrashim aren’t so sure he’s a person). Yaakov is at the mercy of absurd and senseless violence, caught in the dark alone.
Yet, he wrestles until dawn, and when the man sees that he is unable to overcome Yaakov, he hits him in the thigh. He then asks Yaakov to let him go, because day is about to break, but Yaakov won’t let him go until he blesses him. The man asks him his name, Yaakov gives it, and then the man says his new name is “Yisrael” for he has striven with man and god and overcome. Yaakov then asks him what his name is, the man says “why must you know my name”, blesses him and leaves.

Weird story for all sorts of reasons. I don’t know what peshat is. I think Chazal’s reading actually makes the most sense. But let me offer my own.
I see this story as a good metaphor for the life of a religious person.
As religious people, we see the world with certain axioms. God exists. God is good. The world was created by a good God. But sometimes, we find ourselves alone in a world that makes no sense, that doesn’t fit with the religious notions we have, and we are assaulted with doubts and questions and problems. How can God allow evil to happen? How do we know God exists? Why would a good God create this place?
And we struggle with these questions. We come up with proofs of God, and answers for theodicy, and justifications and explanations and deep philosophical thought. We struggle with the questions, we wrestle with them, and we fight them to a draw. We may even think we are “winning”, that we have fought off all the questions and made a rational and coherent system of Judaism that explains everything.
But, there’s an issue. The very presence of those doubts, the very existence of those questions, mean that any of our answers is flawed from its inception. If everything in our religion was rational and self evident, there shouldn’t have been any problems to begin with. The questions do not disappear because of the answers. They’re held off, kept at bay, fought to a draw. But you can’t defeat them entirely. This realization paralyzes us, and makes us unable to completely defeat the doubts that plague us.
Thus, they ask to be let go. And its tempting to abandon the struggle and accept that it all doesn’t make sense. Let the problems go, let them walk away somewhere else, and when the dawn comes, they’ll be gone.

But no! The religious believer demands that he come out with something, anything from this struggle. He refuses to let go, demanding a blessing, something he can salvage from this experience.
The response: Your name is Yisrael, one who strives with man and God. What defines you is the struggle, between man and God, between the finite slice of reality you have and the infinity of God. Some allege that religion is about comfort, about certainty. I doubt it. For how can a thinking person be comfortable with the state of the world when it’s supposed to be the creation of a perfect God? How can someone be certain about God’s goodness and existence in the face of evil? Are those things so easily reconcilable? Religion means you allow yourself to be pulled in two different directions, the divine ideal and the human real, to allow that tension to bother you, to agitate you, until you have to wrestle and struggle with attempting to reconcile the perfection of God’s creation with its corruption, to strive with both man and God.
But still, we still want to know, why those questions and doubts exist, what their purpose is. What is the name, the essential purpose of this force that assaults us? The answer: Why must you know my name? Why must you know everything? None of us can possibly be all-knowing, and each of us only has their small slice of reality. Uncertainty, doubts, and questions lets us know that there is an infinite, unknowable reality that we don’t have access to by ourselves, and spurs us to discover more of that. Certainty, on the other hand, means remaining static, comfortable that your slice of reality is all that exists. We need to not know things to have any hope of progress.

There are many stories in Tanach, many of which are open, public miracles, showy spectacles that make it abundantly clear that there is a God who is powerful and present. But I believe its siginifcant that what defines our people is not the certainty of Egypt or the fiery spectacles of Elijah, but the valiant, uncertain struggle of Israel.