Low and Slow
Parshat Balak 5778
Fire burning flesh. It doesn’t sound too appetizing until you think of cooking meat, which follows that exact recipe. And if it’s really good BBQ, it’s probably fire burning flesh really sloooooowly.
Growing up, the word BBQ meant cooking hot dogs, burgers, or the occasional steak on a propane gas grill. Today, I’m glad to say that I know better. What I did as a child, and still do frequently as an adult, is grilling, which is characterized by high heat for short amounts of time. BBQ is the slow cooking of meat using a combination of low non-direct heat and smoke for many hours, from as few as eight to as many as twenty-four.
BBQ was a major force in the US during the 1800’s, political rallies were always more successful if there was an animal or two cooking off to the side for the attendees to feast on upon the completion of the rally. It then dipped in popularity for a few decades, coming up strong again from the 30’s to the 50’s. But then came the rise of the fast food restaurant and suddenly all anyone wanted was burgers, fries, and shakes. Ironically, the king of all fast food joints, McDonalds, was McDonald’s Bar-B-Que before launching the most successful burger chain of all time. The McDonald brothers simply realized that they could make more profit selling burgers and fries that took a few minutes to cook than selling BBQ which takes the better part of a day.
What goes around comes around, and today McDonalds is shrinking in the US and BBQ restaurants are popping up all over the country faster than cliched lines out of a used car salesman’s mouth. Even in the kosher world, the last five years have brought an explosion of kosher BBQ restaurants, with names like Izzy Smokehouse, Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed, and JoeBob’s Kosher BBQ.
My wife and I just visited Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed in Chicago, and we were not so much perplexed, but rather overwhelmed by the tastiness and tenderness of their fabulous BBQ offerings. The combination of smoky flavors, fall-apart-in-your-mouth tenderness, and rich meat heartiness made us stop multiple times during dinner to thank Ha-shem for making cows, and making them taste so good! But what is it about the BBQ process that transforms meat from the mundane to the sublime?
There is a lot of science behind BBQ, but first we must understand meat. Most meat, with the exception of organ meat such as sweetbreads and liver, is muscle tissue of an animal. Just like in humans, muscle envelops almost the entirety of the cow, and based on where that muscle is located, it is turned into ribs, briskets, chuck, and a variety of steaks.
Muscles are tightly wound chains of amino acids, which expand and contract like a coil, which is how we flex and relax our muscles thousands of times a day without ever thinking about it. Those muscle chains are held together with a protein called collagen. When cooked quickly, collagen contracts and hardens like a stretched rubber band snapping back, making meat rubbery. When cooked slowly over low heat, the collagen expands and allows water in, and in that process turns into gelatin, which is essentially what Jell-O is made of (minus the food dye, sugar, and artificial flavoring!). As you can imagine, meat with lots of microscopic bands that have a Jell-O like consistency is going to be really soft. Additionally, the gelatin happens to have a lot of healthy properties, it is easier on your gut, helps with healthy skin, encourages muscle growth and repair, and bone and joint health. Medicine never tasted better.
The next thing that happens during the slow BBQ process is that the fats in the meat are broken down. In general, fat is what gives flavor to a lot of what we eat, not because fat itself has flavor, but because fat is very absorbent and it absorbs flavors from everything around it, holding onto it and then releasing it back into food when it is cooked. Notice that items in the grocery store that are low-fat often have far more ingredients than the regular item. For example, regular cream cheese has five ingredients, fat-free cream cheese has sixteen, which is a function of scientist trying to artificially bring flavors into something after the fat has been removed. When you grill at high temperatures, a lot of the fat breaks down and leaks out (causing those flareups in your grill). But when you cook meat low and slow, the fat dissolves into the meat, bringing all that delicious flavor with it.
All that happens just from the low and slow heat. But BBQ has another important component; smoke. The smoke is created by burning a variety of woods, and different woods impart different flavors into meat. Some restaurants use applewood, some hickory, mesquite, or a mixture of woods, but they all take the wood very seriously.
Although you don’t think of wood as sweet, it does contain a lot of cellulose, which breaks down into sugar when burning. This is not table sugar, but rather sugar molecules, which is what your body breaks down almost all foods into, not just lollipops, but salmon, avocado, and beef as well! The sugar from the cellulose goes through a process called caramelization, which is when sugars brown and deepen in flavors from heat. These caramelized sugars bounce around inside the smoke filled slow-cooker bombarding the meat with flavor. Lastly, there is lignin. Lignin is a compound found in wood that picks up all sort of aromatics and then infuses them into the meat, making the meat significantly more complex and flavorful!
So meat is good, and slow smoked BBQ meat is even better, but in it all I see some significant metaphors for human growth. Spiritually, we all want to cook. We want to feel passion in our lives, and we want to be alight with growth and movement, not simply shifting through life like cold, clammy, and lifeless automatons. But when we look to light ourselves up, slow and steady is far better than fast and hot. When we try to grow too quickly, we cause the collagen of our psyches, the thought processes that hold our mental muscles together, to contract and harden like rubber bands snapping back. The change is too quick and too fast for our minds to wrap itself around, and we are bound to have our psyche snap back and become rigid and antagonistic toward that change. When the chance is gradual, our mind opens up, absorbs the waters of Torah, and slowly turns into mind-gelatin, with elasticity and great tolerance to change.
Then there is the fat of life. The fat of life is the enjoyment we get out of things, and it is really important that all our meat, all our actions, are well marbleized with enjoyment. When we make changes too quickly, we don’t have the opportunity to really experience and take pleasure in those changes. The enjoyment drops out and gets burned away while we are pushing ourselves for more, more, more. But when we change very slowly, we can take deep pleasure in each step forward as it comes; it’s not overly difficult on us, and we feel good that we are taking steps forward. This way, over time, we continuously feel more pleasure in our growth, the fat seeps into us giving us more flavor in what we do.
Then there is the smoke. Smoke feels painful when it surrounds you, but if you can endure it, you come out caramelized and sweeter for it. There is hazy murkiness in growth, it’s unclear if we’ll be successful and it creates distorted images of our reality. It’s not nearly as easy as maintaining the status quo, but if you can master it, you come out much sweeter of a person for it. And then there is the lignin, the compound that makes the aromatics. Life without change becomes dull and bland, when fighting to bring change and growth into your life, whether you’re immediately successful, or find failure a dozen times before succeeding, your life becomes significantly more complex and flavorful!
Our dinner at Milt’s BBQ was enchanting, and we even had enough leftovers to have a full lunch the next day! It’s fair to say that I’m hooked on slow-and-low cooking; I’m hoping to pull the unused smoker my wife got me for my birthday last year out of the box and start experimenting. But more than all the smoked meat in the world, I hope that my experience inspires me to start pushing the envelope in my life goals as well; low, slow, and packed with flavor.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week recounts the story of Balak the Moabite king who hired Balaam, a non Jewish prophet, to curse the Jews. Through this he hoped to weaken the Jews who had recently orchestrated stunning defeats of all their opponents. The Moabites were afraid that they were next in line, and tried everything in their power to stop the Jews, even to the point of asking a prophet to curse the special nation of the G-d he converses with.
In the beginning of the parsha, the verse describes the fear that the Moabites had of the Jews, and in doing so, it employs a grammatically strange phrase. “Moab became terrified of the people, for he was numerous.” If we are referring to people, shouldn’t it say “for they were numerous?”
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841– Hungary), the author of the commentary Yismach Moshe and the progenitor of the Satmar chassidic dynasty, answers based on a passage in the Jerusalemite Talmud (Peah, 4B). The Talmud wonders what caused certain Jewish kingdoms to fall in battle despite being generally righteous, while other kingdoms who engaged in idol-worship and other sins would go into battle and emerge victorious. The Talmud explains that one of the kingdoms was united and didn’t act hatefully to or speak negatively of one another and for that they merited military victories, while the other kingdom may have been more learned, but they were divisive, they spoke maliciously about one another, and because of that they fell in battle.
This shows that Jewish military victory is most dependent on an extramilitary factor, namely the unity of the Jewish people. The following analogy is often employed to explain this phenomenon: An elderly man who was on his deathbed called all his children into a room. He gave each child a reed and asked them to break it, which they did easily. Then he took out a bundle of tightly wound reeds, and once again asked his children to break it. This time none of them could. He went on to encourage them to forever remain united as that would make them unbreakable.
The Jews, when united and at peace with one another get an extra level of protection from G-d and this makes them undefeatable. (The Midrash Tanchuma [Beha’aloscha, Chap.21] goes even further and says that only when the Jews are united is G-d’s throne fully established in heaven!) The reason that the Moabites were so afraid of the Jewish people is that the “he was numerous,” they all saw themselves as one united being. This was the force that helped them defeat the mighty kingdoms of Sichon and Og, and this was the force that shook the Moabites to the core.
This Sunday will be the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day that commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in the buildup to the destruction of the Second Temple. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, 9B). This is the unfortunate flip side of the power the Jews displayed in our parsha. Just as we were able to conquer mighty kingdoms and slay the giant Og when we had unity, so too, when we lost our unity and descended into contention and feuding, we lost our kingdom and were exiled from out lands.
This Sunday, as we fast and mourn the destruction of our Temple and the exile of our people, let’s focus on how we can rebuild our unity, the secret weapon that will bring us back again to our land and allow us to build the third and final temple!
This week’s parsha, Balak, tells the story of the great gentile prophet Bilaam and his nefarious dealings with the Moabite king Balak. The Midrash tell us that the gentiles complained to G-d, claiming that if only they would have prophets like the Jews have, they too would lead more G-dly lives. G-d responds by giving them a prophet Bilaam, who was equal to Moshe in his power of prophecy. However, Bilaam did not use his gift for the betterment of mankind as Moshe did, rather he used it to acquire fame and fortune for himself.
Balak was the ad hoc king of Moab, who was installed to defend the Moabites from the Jews who had just destroyed two of the strongest nations in Moab’s neighborhood. Realizing that no army was big enough to fight the Jews, Balak looked to AWMD (Alternative Weapons of Mass Destruction), such as curses from a prophet. He sent a large delegation to Bilaam asking him to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam tells the delegation that he needs to sleep on it (he would communicate with G-d while sleeping), and asks them to spend the night. That night G-d tells him not to go curse the Jews, as they are a blessed people.
Bilaam tells the delegation that he cannot go as, “G-d refused permission for me to go with you” thus hinting that the problem was with the delegation, as they were not important enough. Sure enough, Balak sends another delegation, composed of more prestigious members of his court. This time, G-d tells Bilaam that he can go with them as long as he realizes that he will only be able to say what G-d puts in his mouth. This shows us that ultimately G-d will allow us to follow our will, even if we’re making a big mistake.
While Bilaam is traveling, G-d sends an angel in the path which only Bilaam’s donkey can see (this is supposed to teach Bilaam how blinded he is by his desire for honor, – even a donkey can see more clearly than him). The donkey first tries to detour into the fields, later he brushes up against a wall, and finally he stops moving alltogether. Bilaam hits him each time, until finally G-d opens the mouth of the donkey, and he says to Bilaam, “Why are you hitting me? Did I not serve you faithfully your entire life? Have I ever done this before?” Only then does G-d open Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel, and understands his donkey’s actions. The angel reminds Bilaam that he can only say exactly what G-d puts in his mouth.
Finally, Bilaam and Balak go out to the camp of the Jews. Bilaam tells Balak to set up seven altars on which Bilaam will bring sacrifices in the hope of enticing G-d to allow him to curse the people. (Think about it – he is bringing sacrifices to G-d, to get permission to curse G-d children! It’s like bringing a parent $100,000 to kill their firstborn! Could any action possibly contain more gall than that? And what are the chances that it would work?!! But Bilaam is blinded by fame and fortune, and fails to see the folly of his false and fallacious scheme!)
Of course, G-d does not allow him to curse the Jews, and instead puts beautiful praises of the Jewish people in the mouth of Bilaam. Balak, very frustrated, suggests that possibly if Bilaam tries to curse them from a vantage point where he only sees part of the Jewish nation he will be more successful, but again Bilaam praises them eloquently. Again Balak persists, and requests that Bilaam try to curse them from a third location. This time, when he sees the Jewish tents laid out before him, Bilaam doesn’t even try to curse them, but rather blesses them of his own volition. (This blessing is such a poetic praise of the Jewish people that it has become part of the morning prayers.)
Balak tells Bilaam that he better catch the next plane out, as he failed miserably at his mission. But before he leaves, Bilaam gives Balak a strategy for destroying the Jews. He explains that the G-d of the Jews hates sexual immorality, and suggests that Moab send their maidens into the camp to seduce the men, and use their sensuality to coerce the men to not only sin sexually, but even go as far as idolatry. When a man would be at his most vulnerable moment, she was to pull out a small idol, and tell the man that she would only continue if he worshipped it.
This diabolical plan actually works, and thousands of Jews were seduced. It got so bad that the prince of the tribe of Shimon was seduced by a princess (imagine the hatred of Moab – they sent their princess out on a mission like this!). He began to publicly justify his actions, and went as far as to sin publicly in front of Moshe and the Elders at the entrance to the Tabernacle. A plague broke out amongst the sinners, and they started dying. Immediate action was called for, before this would spread to the whole nation. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, stepped up to the task at hand, took a spear, and killed the princess and her paramour, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. After that, the plague stopped, leaving 24,000 dead. On that happy note – That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson
Random Fact of the Week: A neutrino is a particle so small it is capable of passing through a light year (about six trillion miles) of lead without hitting a single atom.
Funny Line of the Week: I am a Nobody. Nobody is Perfect. Therefore I am Perfect.
Have a Sublime Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham