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.

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