Food, family, and drama - a common trio. There's nothing like it. It can bring a family together, or tear it apart.
Consider the first time you brought someone special home to meet the family, and had to explain why there were two kinds of matzoh balls for the soup (hard and soft). Or recall that first holiday dinner after Mom's death, and you made sure to serve the recipe Grandma always used to make, even using the same bowl she used. Maybe it's a birthday dinner, the same menu every year, or it's a helping of comfort food served with a sympathetic ear, to get over a break up. And sometimes, it's the announcement that was supposed to come out at the end of the meal, but got spilled onto the table like a glass of red wine, and nobodyc an do anything but freeze with forks in midair.
All sorts of scenarios play out over the food on the table, and the Torah has its share of both the comforting and the destructive.
Just a few weeks ago, we read about the paragon of hospitality, Abraham. He saw some wanderers outside his tent and invited them in for a feast. He rushed around to make sure his guests were well fed and cared for, and in return, he and his wife Sarah received the prophecy that they would welcome a son in the next year. The food he and Sarah whipped up was designed to make their guests realize how special they were.
On the other hand, in the case of the parashah(portion) callled Toldot-food is a tool used to destroy the family.
First, Jacob makes this tasty lentil stew and has it simmering away when Esau comes back from the hunt. Esau is the one goes out to the fields, hunting game to put food on the family's table, while Jacob stays by the home and hearth. Esau enters the family compound faint with hunger and exhaustion. Jacob, ever the "good" brother, offers him the savory stew. Except first, he extracts a promise from Esau to give up his birthright to Jacob. Esau agreed to the strings attached to the stew, because right or wrong, Esau thought he needed that food to live. It was an existential moment that came down to what was most important to him: his life at that very moment, or his future role as the birthright son. He chose to focus on life then and there, and maybe that's why he gets such a bad rap in the rabbinic writings. For however he went about it, Jacob indeed had his eye on thefuture.
Food again comes into the story when we read that when Isaac has gotten old and wants to offer his elder son his blessing. Isaac instructs Esau to go out and hunt some game to make him his favorite meal. But Rebecca overhears this, and in her ever-meddling way, tells Jacob to go get her the ingredients for the favorite meal from the existing flock, so she can make it before Esau gets back, thereby putting into process the whole "I'm Esau, Dad, it's really me" ruse so Jacob can take Esau'sblessing. Here, Isaac's favorite food actually becomes an accessory to the pivotal deception that creates such hatred from Esau that it keeps the brothers apart for twenty years.
These days it's even hard to sit down at a meal together, what with the various dietary accommodations. Many an expert has bemoaned the disappearance of family meal time, what with the many different schedules in the same household, and that has become an easy excuse for not sitting down together. But it doesn't have tobe that way. A lot of love is conveyed in leaving a plate to be warmed up, so an exhausted spouse doesn't have to fend for themselves. A lot of confidence is instilled when a child is asked to make their own dinner because Mom or Dad has a meeting.
Food is either what keeps you alive, or makes for a good life. Abraham knew the special joy of bringing strangers to his table, and Isaac experienced the despair of realizing that great food doesn't cover up the cracks in the family table. Whether it's a big family meal, or packing a school lunch, food conveys what's in your heart. May we each find joy in a full table of old and new friends, try new recipes, and revel in the traditional ones, laugh through the little spills, and all help in the cleaning up.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.