Tell me, my daughters,--
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
(King Lear, Act 1, Sc. 1)
Lear asks his three daughters, "Who loves me most?" Goneril speaks first, Regan second. Each tries to outdo the other in false flattery. Lear turns to Cordelia, his youngest. She replies, "I am sure my love is more richer than my tongue." (Act 1, Sc. 1) Unable to hear the wisdom of Cordelia's words, he presses her further. "What can you say to draw a third, more opulent than your sisters? Speak." He invites her to compete with the empty hyperbole of her sisters. She, in enduring dignity, replies, "Nothing, my Lord." He disinherits her. The rest of the play's tragic story is well-known.
Cordelia chose silence to convey that her love for her father is so vast it is inexpressible. Had she read the Torah she would have known of another non-verbal gesture to demonstrate her love, preparing a meal for and feeding her father.
When Isaac is near death and seeks to give bracha (blessing), meaning he wants (like Lear) to bequeath his spiritual and material estate to his children, he summons his older son Esau, and says to him, "My son." He answered, "Hineini-Here I am." Isaac says, "I am old now and I do not know how soon I may die. …hunt me some game and prepare a dish for me such as I love…so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." Hearing this, Rebecca persuades Jacob to present himself as Esau to Isaac. She prepares "a dish such as his father loved," for Jacob to bring to Isaac.
Food and love are linked in this drama. To demonstrate their love for their father so that they he may bless them, both Esau and Jacob prepare food that their father loves. Not rich in emotional language, the Torah is limited in its use of the word 'love.' The first mention of love is between Abraham and Isaac, the second between Isaac and his bride, Rebecca. In the drama of Jacob and Esau the word "love" is used four times, each time in association with food.
Food is love. No sooner does the Torah instruct humanity to procreate in love and bring children into the world than the Torah instructs about food and nurturing. Life created in love is nurtured in love. In the act of love that is life creation, implicit is the obligation to feed and nurture the life created. Life is created in love. Life is sustained, fed, and nurtured in the love expressed in the preparation and feeding of food.
"Food is love" is under assault today. Eating away at the fabric of food and love is fast food, hotel food, fancy restaurant food, catered food, take-out food, frozen food, canned food, airline food, diner food, vending machine food, junk food, truck food, food on the run…
Cooking and eating marshal all the senses. Food delights the eyes. Food offers aromas so powerful that smelling is almost like eating. Preparing food with hands is a sensual experience. Food speaks many languages in its origins and in the sounds it transmits during preparation and cooking and eating. The deployment and use of the five senses in the meal preparation and feeding of others is an all-encompassing act of love. The whole person cooks and feeds.
Jewish civilization surrounded families in their homes with cooking and eating. The first national Jewish act is a family meal, the Passover seder. The Jewish people's first encounter with Shabbat is through the double portion of manna, followed by challah, one for each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The three pilgrimage festivals are days when Israel has sacred family meals on the slopes of the Temple Mount whose menu consists of the bounty of the land blessed with the seven species, wheat, barley, dates, figs, olives, grapes, and pomegranates. These are eaten in Jerusalem, which God has chosen as residence for His Name. Where the Name resides, Jewish families eat. Where a family meal takes place, the Presence of God resides.
When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish family dinner table (especially on Shabbat and holidays) became the place of the loving and sensory experiences of Judaism. As the Jewish people moved about in the lands of their dispersion there was the common experience of food preparation and family meals. The transmission of belief in the One God, of the Torah, of the Mitzvot, was wrapped in the love that is experienced in preparing food, serving food, and feeding others. A family that spends Passover in a hotel surely has a wonderful time, but their home no longer surrounds and envelops its children with Jewish cooking and seder preparation.
If Cordelia had imitated Esau and Jacob and prepared a meal for her father, she would have expressed her love in a sensory way without verbally competing with her sisters. It is time we returned home to food and love.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.