Saturday, November 29, 2008

Destiny in a Bowl of Soup:
A Toledot ShulDrasha

I went to college in [Upstate New York];
and the way the kosher dining hall works there
is that you pay
when you come in,
and then, for whatever meal you're there for, it's all-you-can-eat.

One day
I was sitting there
at a table
about to start eating my lunch.

I had just sat down
with a bowl of lentil soup
when my brother walked in.

My twin brother —
my older twin brother —
who was born five minutes before me.
Not exactly grabbing his heel on the way out, but close enough.

My brother
looked at me.
And then he looked across the room
to the daily menu on the wall.
And then he looked back at me,
and at the soup
on the table.

And then he said
הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא
מִן הָאָדֹֿם הָאָדֹֿם הַזֶּה

“Feed me
some of that red red stuff!”

So of course I said
“Sure —
if you sell me your birthright!”

To make a short story shorter,
I gave my brother
the bowl of lentil soup,
and he gave me
his birthright...
and then I immediately
went back to the counter
of the dining hall
and got myself a new bowl
of lentil soup. (Because I still wanted my lunch)

My twin brother sold me his birthright
for a bowl of lentil soup.
We did it for kicks
for fun
for the humor of the situation —
because we thought it would be amusing
to re-enact
what עשו and יעקב did
in this week's פרשה.

But that just raises the question:
Why did עשו do it in the first place?

Why would he sell his birthright
for a single meal?
Why would he ask to be fed
using a verb
that seems to mean
“to gulp down”?
Why would he,
as the תורה says,
his birthright?

עשו was a hunter,
a man of the field.
While יעקב was sitting around the tents —
watching the sheep
according to some commentators;
learning divine and human wisdom
according to others —
his brother,
the big hairy hunter
was risking his life.

עשו was out there
fighting for survival —
hunting animals
to take away their lives
and sustain his own.

And עשו hunted for meat,
bringing home food
to feed his family —
after all,
צַיִדֿ בְּפִֿיו
the hunted meat in his mouth
was what caused יצחק
to prefer עשו
over his more passive, innocent brother.

And so
when יעקב offers him a trade —
a single meal for his birthright —
עשו answers
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִֿי הוֹלֵךְֿ לָמוּתֿ
וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹֿרָה

“Hey!” he says,
“I'm going to die!
What use to me is a birthright?”

The commentator רד"ק
reads עשו's answer
not as the desperate plea
of an exhausted hunter
stumbling home —
but as a statement
about how עשו lives his life.
הנה אנכי הולך למות
“I am a person
whose entire identity
is bound up with death” —
He's out there in the fields,
risking his life,
fighting beasts and nature,
trying to bring home
food and resources
for his family.

is his life.
is his life.

עשו is out there
day after day
just trying to survive —
and when your entire life
is centered around
just the continuation of that life,
centered around survival itself —
what use is a birthright?

What do you need it for?
Some abstract future promise;
something about
the “heritage of אברהם”
and eventual spiritual greatness and success?
Who needs it?

When you're confronting
the End
at every instant —
who has time
to think about
some long-ago
or some hypothetical

And yet,
when we look at
יעקב אבינו,
we see that he also
confronted Death.
A number of מדרשים
make the claim
that the lentil stew
which יעקב was cooking
when עשו returned from the field
was a meal of consolation
for the death of אברהם
his grandfather.

And when יעקב
later on in the פרשה
gets his own blessing from his father,
what he receives is
בִּרְכַּתֿ אַבְֿרָהָם
the blessing of אברהם —
the promise
that connects the past —
אברהם's contract with God —
to the future —
the ultimate fulfillment of that contract
and the inheritance of The Land
by יעקב's descendents.

While עשו sees Life
as a constant struggle against Death —
a ‘Danger is his middle name’ story,
a precarious existence
living by the sword” —
יעקב sees the very same world
and refuses to disconnect
the present
from the past and the future.

We'll see next week
how even
while living on the run,
even while sleeping on rocks on the ground,
יעקב believes not just
in the immediate present,
but in the future as well,
when he wakes up
from his dream of angels
and promises to return
and dedicate that sudden place
as a House of God

And יעקב passed
this Long View of Time
on to his descendents.
This recognition
that the present
is not just some
evanescent ‘now’ —
but is intimately
bound up together
with the past
that shaped it,
and the future
to which it leads,
is one part of that which has preserved the Jewish People
down through the centuries.

This past Thursday,
was a holiday — and probably not the one you're thinking of.
The 29th of מרחשוון is a holiday called סיגד.
Celebrated by the Jews of Ethiopia,
סיגד is a day of reflection —
an echo of יום כיפור,
a commemoration of Mount Sinai,
and a re-enactment
of the Return
to the Land of Israel and to Torah
by the exiles coming back from Babylon
in the time of עזרא.

In times of poverty, persecution,
and isolation from the rest of the Jewish People,
the סיגד celebrations
on Ethiopian mountaintops
stubbornly recalled the past
and envisioned a future
when סיגד could be observed
at the end of the exile, back home in Jerusalem.

The Jews of Ethiopia
refused to give in
to an עשו view of the world
where the struggle to survive
becomes an excuse
to live minute-to-minute
in an ever-transient
and meaningless present.
they remembered the past,
and were confident
in a future
which we have already seen fulfilled —
חג הסיגד
in the streets of ירושלים itself.

And a bit closer to home,
on the first national Day of Thanksgiving
proclaimed by George Washington
for Thursday, November 26, 1789,
חזן גרשום מֶינדֶיס סֵיישַׁאס
the spiritual leader
of the Jewish community
of New York City
gave a sermon
in which he tied together
the past, present and future.

Like the Ethiopians
celebrating Sigd across the ocean,
Ḥazan Seixas encouraged his community
to observe מצוות
and to love תורה.

He spoke about the long history of Exile,
that since the Destruction
of the Second Jewish Commonwealth,
in his words,
“our predecessors have been,
and we are still at this time
in captivity
among the different nations of the earth” —
and he continued,
“we cannot but view ourselves
as captives
in comparison to what we were formerly,
and what we expect to be hereafter,
when the outcasts of Israel
shall be gathered together...”

He urged his community
to see the present
in light of the past and the future,
and to recognize the significance, in the midst of this long exile,
of the founding of a nation
based on ideals of freedom
where Jews, too, could be equal partners
in the benefits and responsibilities
of creating and maintaining
a truly just society —
and to thank God for that opportunity.

Now, עשו would tell you
that it doesn't matter —
eat when you can,
and fight when you can,
and don't think
about the promise of tomorrow
or the heritage of yesterday.
עשו was a man
who never paused to reflect;
his life was a string of verbs.

וַיֹּאכַֿל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְֿ
He ate and he drank
and he got up and left.
וַיִּבֶֿז עֵשָׂו אֶתֿ הַבְּכֹֿרָה
And עשו dishonored
his birthright.

עשו's life
was all about Now.
He had no time
to think about anything
but his immediate needs.
He threw away his birthright,
and with it,
אברהם's heritage,
because he thought
that it would be
but a distraction
from the business of survival.

But what יעקב taught us
is that the past sustains us,
and the future gives us hope;
that together
they give value and meaning
to this transient present;
and that if you remember that,
then not just nutrients
but Destiny
can be contained
in a bowl of soup.


Blogger Ezzie said...

That was awesome.

12/02/2008 2:24 PM  
Blogger G said...


12/02/2008 4:18 PM  
Blogger Daniel Saunders said...

I liked this. Thanks for informing me about Sigd, which I had never heard of before.

While יעקב was sitting around the tents —
watching the sheep
according to some commentators;
learning divine and human wisdom
according to others —

I don't see a contradiction between the two opinions. Sheparding gives time for meditation on what matters in life.

12/02/2008 5:35 PM  
Anonymous brother Esav Danger Benyitschak said...

Your fancy shmancy dvar torah wisdoms will never come between me and my soup.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm... sacril-icious!

12/02/2008 5:53 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


12/02/2008 6:58 PM  
Blogger Wil Roepke said...

Thank you for that.
It was a beautifully nuanced approach to a story that so often comes out caricatured and simplistic in our tradition. I enjoyed it immensely.

12/02/2008 8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, gee, here I was going to compliment you and now everyone else did first and now I don't feel special anymore. grr... However, that being said, this rocked.

12/03/2008 12:19 AM  
Anonymous seebee said...

Great post/dvar torah.
I may have missed a couple of posts but why are you writing these in verse now?

12/04/2008 3:43 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...



that's just how i think when it comes to speeches. i don't do long lines and paragraphs so well.

12/04/2008 6:54 PM  
Blogger B.BarNavi said...

"מֶינדֶיס סֵיישַׁאס"

I'm sure it was מֶינדֶיז סֵיישַׁאז at this point Na Lengua Portuguesa, but I could (as usual) be very very wrong.

Esav Danger ben Yitzhak. That's the money quote of this parsha, Steg's Brother.

12/06/2008 10:49 PM  
Blogger Knitter of shiny things said...

So what are you going to do with your brother's birthright?

12/07/2008 10:56 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


i was just theorizing; it can also be hard to tell the difference between Spanish, Portuguese, and Ladino prounciations.


wouldn't you like to know ;-)

12/07/2008 5:47 PM  

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