Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Brisket Tastes Better with Friends: Parashat Vayera

      Have you ever noticed that food tastes better when someone else makes it?  Also, with rare exception, we enjoy food more when we savor it with good company.  Brisket tastes better with friends.  Brisket tastes exceptional when someone else has prepared it for us.  No matter how delicious the dish, cooking for oneself and eating alone is often a sad business.  Our father Abraham knew this, and therefore, was committed to offering three strangers his best food when they happened across him in the desert:

Genesis 18:5And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; after[wards] you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant." And they said, "So shall you do, as you have spoken."ה. וְאֶקְחָה פַת לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם אַחַר תַּעֲבֹרוּ כִּי עַל כֵּן עֲבַרְתֶּם עַל עַבְדְּכֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ:

Every year, this verse catches my attention. Rashi teaches us that, "In the Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Hagiographa, we find that bread is the sustenance of the heart."  Bread was the base of every meal in the ancient world.  In the Talmud we learn that without bread there is no Torah learning.  In this parasha we learn that without bread the heart withers.
         Why is bread so important to us?  Is it just because we love to eat?  I think that there are deeper lessons to be learned.  The first lesson is very basic, but one that we are quick to ignore if we are not food insecure.  When we do not have enough to eat, not only do our bodies suffer, but also our souls.  If we do not know whether we will have enough food to feel satisfied throughout the day, we cannot focus on anything else.  It becomes difficult to be kind, considerate, creative, or even rational.  When we provide food for the stranger or the person in need, we not only sustain their bodies, but allow them to attain emotional stability and spiritual peace.
          Additionally, in Jewish culture, we show love through food.  Sometimes this can be an unhealthy impulse, but there is also a deep beauty in sharing our resources, our energy, and our care.  Words are cheap, but a beautiful meal is not.  Words can also be complicated.  How do you express deep care for people in your community?  How do you express your love for and commitment to a fellow Jew if you have never met before (without being totally creepy)?  I have found the best way to express those feelings in a healthy and effective way is by providing meals.  On one hand, it seems silly to focus so much on food, but there are good reasons why our rabbis commanded us to prepare festive meals for our major holidays.
           In the wake of the most recent Pew Study on Jews and Judaism, the leaders of the Jewish world are in hysterics once again about how to save the Jewish people.  We rush to create new programs, fund new non-profits, and write editorials that will convince Jews to remain committed to their culture, people, homeland, and faith.  I think we need to look back to the wisdom of our sages and some of their solutions: food and hospitality.  In my view, the one thing that characterizes effective and transformational Jewish leaders is an obvious love for the Jews they encounter.  I have seen this love expressed by rabbis of every denomination, and leaders in every Jewish vocation.  They approach their work and the people they serve with love. Once that love is expressed, the relationships created come to sustain healthy and vibrant communities.
       For a variety of historical and cultural reasons, we are disinclined to speak about love.  How do you operationalize love?  Doesn't expressing love connote an inappropriate boundary violation?  Love is a hard value to pin down, and an even harder one to put into practice in a world so wary of intimacy.  However, I think we lose out when we do not talk about ahavat Yisrael openly because I believe it is the necessary ingredient in securing our Jewish future.  I do believe our people will be sustained one home-made brisket (or vegan alternative) at a time.  Care and conversation comprise the spiritual foundation of our community, and both are better served with food.
        We learn in the Talmud, "“Receiving guests is of greater [importance] than greeting the Divine Presence.” (Shabbat 127a)  This mitzvah is of such great importance that we can break other laws of Shabbat in order to make room for unexpected guests at our table.  Why are the rabbis so passionate about hospitality?  Because we show God our greatest love by caring for The Divine's creations.  Because the covenant cannot be maintained without love among our people.  This week we will have our second annual Beth Israel/Colby Hillel Home Hospitality Shabbat.  If you are in Waterville, please participate.  If you are further away, take this week's portion as an opportunity to invite someone into your home that is hungry for sustenance -- physical, spiritual, or both.  The love you express with that meal will not only evidence your commitment to The Eternal One and bring greater richness into your own life, it will also secure the future of our people and the covenant that sustains all of us.

Shabbat Shalom.