D’var Torah: Parashat Toldot

15 Nov

Parashat Toldot continues the narrative of the Abrahamic family line. Two famous twins wrestle in the womb before emerging; each possesses definitive characteristics that figure prominently in the unfolding of their lives. As a privilege of being the first born, Esau is entitled to the birthright, favored by his father, and admired for his physical prowess. Yaakov represents the polar opposite and is favored by his mother. Although their traits are seemingly unequal and they occupy opposite ends of the social and physical spectrum, food becomes the ultimate equalizer, and it is from their interactions with food that an important lesson may be drawn.

Two famous events involving food are featured prominently. Esau returns from exhausting labor in the field to find his brother making a stew (Bereishit 25:29). With tremendous urgency, as if he may be approaching starvation, Esau demands a serving of the red stew.  Sensing Esau’s desperation, Yakov demands the birthright of Esau in return for a hearty meal. Bereshit 25:34 details the urgency and speed with which Esau devours the meal, as well as his immediate departure. There is no other verse in the Torah which contains five consecutive verbs, conveying the hurried and unthinking nature of Esau’s food consumption. Some time later, in Bereshit 27, Isaac instructs Esau to prepare a very specific meal. Rivka, overhearing the exchange, arranges the preparation of the prescribed meal, along with a rudimentary disguise for Yakov. Isaac accepts the disguise, eats of the festive meal, and confers upon Yakov the blessing that was intended for Esau. Once again, food would be used in upsetting the predetermined ranking of these twin brothers.

Jewish dietary laws, kashrut, provide the structure to transform every act of eating into one of increased significance. Humans have been blessed with the ability to generate, create, and cultivate their own food. Humans are also able to use a collective mastery over the animal kingdom to select from almost any of the thousands of species to eat. Kashrut places divine constraints on what may and may not be eaten, elevating a random act of eating into the fulfillment of divine will, ideally infusing it with sanctity. The Talmud, in Chagiga 27b, likens the table in the home to an altar upon which sacrifices are offered to God. Therefore, sitting down to a meal served upon a properly prepared table is equivalent to taking part in the daily sacrifices which were performed in the temple. While the characters in Toldot were plagued by food-related incidents, there exists also a potential dimension of holiness.

Yom Kippur sees the height of Jewish asceticism. Among other activities, Yom Kippur demands a total refraining from food and drink. Affliction of the soul, the opposite of Esau’s behavior, is intended to inspire tshuva and repentance. Furthermore, in the recitation of confession on Yom Kippur a number of the sins in the litany are connected to sins involving food and drink or sins that could result from abuse and misuse of food and drink. This unique amalgamation of the conceptual implications of food, causing spiritual introspection or paving a path to undesired activities, provides another element through which to view the two narratives of Toldot. Esau’s hunger drew him to make rash decisions, on Yom Kippur the lack of food assists in relocating the penitent to a higher spiritual plane.

Consumption of food and drink is obviously essential to our existence and the continuation of life. According to most estimates, a person will die without water within several days. Although we are able to survive considerably longer without food, the discomfort is extreme and the health risks are significant. The Torah itself, in Devarim 8:10, ritualizes the process of nourishment in commanding v’achalta, v’savata, uveirachta, eat, be satisfied, and  bless God for providing food of sustenance. Jewish legal literature flexes its collective muscle and attempts, over the course of several centuries, to define exactly the quantity of food that is considered eating. Eating and the subsequent blessing are yet another opportunity to fulfill a commandment of the Torah, further proving the centrality of eating as a sanctified act in the Jewish experience.

Armed now with some additional aspects of food and nourishment, a review of the stories of parashat Toldot is in order. Isaac, Esau, Yakov and Rivka connected by virtue of being victims or beneficiaries of the use and abuse of food. Humans must consume sustenance in order to survive and maintain healthy lives and bodies. Inasmuch as food is essential, hunger, like that of Esau, can lead to clouded and irrational thinking, even gluttony. While food may  be a vehicle for trickery and deception, it is also a conduit to a more intense theological connection and fulfillment of Torah commandments.These four Biblical characters demonstrate the power of food, and the potential therein for pitfalls. Heeding their examples should be more than a passing thought.

D’var Torah: Parashat Vayeira

30 Oct

Avraham is traditionally viewed as the paradigm of faith and devotion to God; great consequence is subsequently attached to his attitudes and actions throughout the book of Bereishit. As Vayeira, our parasha this week, opens, Avraham is sitting at the opening of his tent whereupon he identifies three travelers approaching. Avraham famously hurries to greet them, bows low, washes their feet, and arranges food and water for these men. Avraham and Sarah tend to the smallest detail in welcoming their newly arrived guests. Regardless of whether or not Avraham knew the true identity of his visitors, the mode in which he receives these guests remains commendable and provides a model for contemporary hospitality.

Although Bereishit 18:1-8 will remain the most significant example, the mitzva of welcoming guests is so central to Jewish identity that verses alluding to or explicitly mentioning the commandment can be located throughout the Torah. So significant is the commandment itself that the entire Jewish people are commanded in its performance. In other words, hachnasat orchim is not incumbent upon a sub-section of the population; all are responsible for the fulfillment. The gemara in Bava Metzia 86b reveals that the guests appeared to Avraham as practitioners of idol worship, an action for which Jews must die rather than transgress. The questionable religious practices of these men, whom Avraham later recognized as messengers of God, were no obstacle to the performance of this central commandment. A Jewish home must exist then with a perpetually open door, through whose threshold guests of all stripes may step.

Methodologically speaking, performing the mitzva of hachnasat orchim should be relatively simple. The Rabbinic Sages explain however that in order to properly fulfill the mitzvah, it must be fully undertaken. The home should be prepared such that an arriving guest may be comfortable, an appropriate sleeping space shall be designated, whether an office, spare bedroom, or something similar. Unsettling is a guest’s feeling upon his realization that the night will be spent in a public area of the household or on an uncomfortable folding apparatus. The host is obligated in creating a home-like atmosphere for his guests, and in this way the mitzvah itself is fulfilled.

While the centrality of the mitzva and the method of its fulfillment are established, comparisons to other mitzvot must now be drawn so as to achieve more complete understanding. Shabbat 127b provides two beautiful proofs. The gemara states that welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the presence of God, undoubtedly an incredible claim. The gemara then continues and quotes Rebbi Yohanan who equates hospitality with early arrival to the hall of study, Rav Dimi of Neharda says that hospitality is of a higher status. Seemingly there should be no higher level of divine service than accepting the presence of God and/or learning God’s Torah.  Thus the relative importance as measured against other commandments is truly revealed.

I must confess that I am an extraordinarily nervous guest. I wonder where I will sleep, whether or not I will be comfortable, the potential scenarios tumble through my mind. It is through this lens of the nervous guest that the hospitality of Avraham and Sarah takes on especially important personal meaning. I have been fortunate to be invited to stay in the homes of teachers, friends, and strangers. Their tireless endeavors, in the shadow of Avraham, ensured that I felt welcomed and comfortable, efforts that  do not go unnoticed. Personal experiences combined with the exploration of hachnasat orchim itself confirm the theological and mythological significance of Avraham’s hospitality, reinforcing his overarching paradigmatic status.