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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת תולדות, תש״פ

Parshat Toldot, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

Hospitality and Food on Thanksgiving

Ah Judaism, the religious tradition of “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” A friend of mine reflected on facebook while observing his fellow Kroger shoppers the day before Thanksgiving, “What’s the big deal? It’s just Shabbat dinner with a bigger bird.” Now that we’re done with Thanksgiving, we’re about to go straight into a holiday that celebrates the miracle of oil through donuts and deep-fried potatoes. A few months after that, we’ll nosh some hamentaschen on Purim, and soon after that, on Pesach, we’ll have a Biblically mandated multi-course meal.

One of the ways that halakhah, Jewish law, mandates that we celebrate is through seudot, festive meals involving as many family members and guests as possible. And between the delicious hospitality of our Biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah and the Passover Haggadah’s command to open our doors and yell to the world, “All who are hungry, come and eat!”, we’ve been taught again and again that the best way to show our compassion in the world is through food.

But while family memories and Jewish traditions can be heightened through a kugel, babka, or matzo ball soup, Parshat Toldot gives us two examples of how food can become manipulative, embarrassing, or even frightening. Twice in our story, our patriarch Jacob wields power over his older brother Esau through the use of food. In the first part of our story, Esau stumbles home starved after a long day of hunting and finds Jacob cooking lentil stew. When Esau asks for some of the red stuff, Jacob demands Esau’s birthright in exchange - in his vulnerable position, Esau agrees. Later, as Jacob and Esau’s father, Isaac, is getting older, Isaac asks Esau to make him his favorite meal so that Isaac can give Esau the blessing destined for his firstborn son. Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, trick Isaac and Esau through the use of, again, a delicious meal; Jacob ends up with that blessing, and with it, becomes the founder of the nation of Israel. In the story of Jacob and Esau, sustenance is turned to trickery, warning us that food alone does not translate to hospitality.

For those who have struggled with food, every holiday season, whether Jewish or secular, poses an endless array of challenges. For those who experience disordered eating, one relative’s comment about weight gain or one friend’s call to eat more can be emotionally staggering. For those with food allergies, food sensitivities, or conditions that limit the amount and type of food they can eat, every buffet line has the potential to trigger guilt and anxiety, no matter what lengths of preparation hosts have gone through to accommodate. The words we say to family and friends surrounding food often have more effect than we intend. When we offer food to others, we must convey the message that this food is given as a voluntary gift - that we are hosting and celebrating not for the sake of the food, but rather, for the sake of the people present at the table.

Beyond affecting the people present at the meal, the food we prepare directly affects the lives of others we’ll never meet. While buying enough to feed an army might be the strategy our parents taught us for feeding the guests at our table, our food waste affects those who don’t have such easy access. When we buy more than we’ll eat, we disrupt the chain of supply and demand, and on a larger scale, we fill landfills and pollute our soil with what could have so easily otherwise been nourishment. As yet another holiday season is upon us, we have to ask what it might mean to expand our notions of hospitality through sustenance.

Offering hospitality through food gives us the real results of family and friends coming together around something we both need and enjoy. Here at Agudath Achim, we always see larger numbers of people at food-based events - we had about eighty people in the building for Break the Fast, and many like to come to Saturday morning services just in time for lunch and learning. We do some of our best communal tzedakah when collecting cans of food for the food pantry over the High Holy Days. And we step up when community members are ill or in mourning and need some extra casseroles in their freezers.

As Jews, we are stars at offering food, but I bet we can take it one step further. We can offer compassion through our preparation and presentation of food, even if that presentation is not accepted in a manner we might expect. When we host guests for our holiday meals, we can inquire about food sensitivities beforehand, so that we know they will have something safe to eat. When it seems like a guest is eating too much or too little, we can hold our tongues. That guest is an adult who has the ability to make her own choices, based on her own mental or physical needs. When we buy food for a big spread, we can try, hard as it is, to buy just enough. And if that really goes against our training, we can accompany each giant trip to the grocery store with the purchase of an extra bag of cans for the food pantry. At those meals we host, we can make sure that entertainment and support is present in forms other than food - music, games, prayer, and hopefully, a whole lot of laughter. As the next holiday season comes around, let’s offer true hospitality, not just food.