Parshat Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9
Key moments in the book of Genesis often take place near a well, the quintessential place of sustenance. Throughout the first book of the Bible, the patriarchs dig and re-dig springs, in order to sustain their families and satiate their flocks. Abraham’s servant Hagar and their son Ishmael are delivered from certain death in the wilderness by their vision of a mysterious well. Abraham’s servant Eliezer encounters Rebecca, and determines that she is the one whom his son Isaac is destined to marry, at a well. And Jacob, Isaac’s son, meets his beloved Rachel for the first time at a well, finding love after having fled from his family. The pure waters of a gentle wellspring, which gave life in the ancient Near East as they do today, are worthy of the greatest respect, reflecting and symbolizing the ever-flowing river of divine compassion and human openheartedness, as well as the lifegiving resources of God’s creation.
A second set of central events in Genesis take place in the context of another reflection and symbol of sustenance: breaking bread and sharing food. One of these is the tale of the three angels visiting the tent of Abraham and Sarah, who hurry to offer a repast to their weary guests. They are the very model of openhearted giving, sharing as an expression of generosity and the moral obligation of hospitability.
But another, less magnanimous moment is found in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. Esau, famished to the point of thoughtlessness, stumbles into his brother Jacob’s camp and demands some of the food his brother has prepared. Jacob assents, but names his price: Esau is required to give up his birthright, forfeiting his primogeniture in exchange for satisfying his hunger.
Reading this account of the encounter between Jacob and Esau, two critical lessons leap forth from the story. The first emerges from Jacob’s decision to sell the food to his brother. Unlike his openhanded grandfather, Jacob seems preoccupied with the transactional component of sharing a meal. We are all guilty of this line of reasoning at times, letting the question of what a person might do for us in exchange override the possibility of simply assisting someone in need. The second lesson has to do with the behavior of the hapless Esau, reminding us of the times we ourselves expect or demand things from others, seeing them (at least for a moment) as nothing more than vehicles for satisfying our own self-interest.
Both Esau and Jacob think of themselves before the other, and sustenance as no more than a means to accomplish a goal.
Indeed, it is not merely ancient symbolism that makes the pivotal role of food in this story so noteworthy for us. Our choices in resource management over the next decade or two will surely impact the world for centuries to come. If we look upon food in a purely utilitarian manner or, perhaps even worse, a right or a privilege to be expected and demanded at any cost, our children will pay the price.
Each time we sit down to a meal, each time we cook for our families and friends, we have the opportunity to make ethical decisions with far-reaching consequences. We can either bark a command at someone and settle down to consume, or we can become ennobled by thinking beyond the confines of our own plates and appetites.
“When the Temple stood, the sacrifices atoned for our sins,” the rabbis of the Talmud teach. “But after its destruction, it is our conduct at the table that atones for sin.” We are called to comport ourselves with dignity and a spirit of generosity, bringing others to share in our bounty, and remembering that each morsel is a divine gift that cannot be demanded or taken for granted.
We are but stewards of this fragile world, guests at a table that is ultimately not our own. Do we stumble to our place setting and demand, like a tired infant, that our every need be met? Do we hold back resources from others in order to attain our goals? We, like Esau, seem to be willing to sell our birthright of this planet for momentary pleasure. Will we have the courage to note the power of our purchasing choices and the obligation to share with others, and to treat food and water as precious gifts that cannot be taken for granted?
Approaching the act of eating with inattention contributes toward entropy and apathy. Eating with mindfulness and openheartedness, on the other hand, transforms us into a conduit—or perhaps a wellspring, as the book of Genesis might have it—of blessing and grace in the world. The decision lies before us, over and over again, each and every day.
Ariel Evan Mayse is the Director of Jewish Studies and visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He holds a PhD in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el. In addition to several scholarly and popular articles on Jewish mysticism, he is co-editor of the two-volume collection Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings From Around the Maggid’s Table (Jewish Lights, 2013) and editor of From the Depth of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (Paulist Press, 2014).
Interested in finding a new career? You might be interested in Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.