Inner Struggles (2016/5777)
Rebecca became pregnant. The children struggled within her. She said, “If this is the case, why should I exist?” She went to inquire of God. God said to her, “Two nations are in your womb…and one people shall be mightier than the other.” Genesis 25:21-23
As I read this passage, I’m reminded of my own experience. During my first pregnancy I felt quite ill, and the future H. was as wild in the womb as she is now. At times, my consciousness seemed to shrink to a single existential mantra, “We’re alive.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) – who was never pregnant – also saw himself in this passage. He was reminded of his inner struggles, existential questions, and gleanings from spiritual counseling. Rebecca, he said, was stressed by her soul’s inner conversation – particularly by the thoughts and feelings she most disliked. When they arose, she would think, “I’m so awful, I don’t deserve to live.”
Wisely (said Levi Yitzchak), Rebecca visited a spiritual counselor, who said, “You are not awful; you are normal. Every human being has at least two inner choruses. Our rabbinic tradition calls these the yetzer hatov, good formation, and yetzer hara, bad formation. You feel the pain of struggle because you are actively working on your formation. Do not worry! The good will be mightier than the bad.”
Levi Yitzchak’s words bring me comfort, too. Sometimes I struggle with deep feelings of hurt, which my conscious mind cannot moderate. Levi Yitzchak reminds me: while you are working, the hurt may feel more intense. Take it as a message of hope.
Culinary Spirituality (5774/2013)
Some years ago, a bar mitzvah student reframed for me the rivalry between twin brothers Jacob and Esau. This young man, the son of restaurateurs and now a culinary student himself, said that everything depended on the brothers’ “cooking contest.”
His insight is true to the story. The brothers enact their rivalry over food. Early in their young adult lives, they vie for the birthright. Esau sells it to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Later in their young adult lives, they compete to receive the blessing from their father. Jacob, knowing that his father promised to bless Esau after dinner, rushes to feed his father first.
Over what, exactly, are these culinary brothers competing? The birthright seems to refer to a double share of their father’s monetary wealth. (In the end, each becomes independently wealthy in his chosen profession, and neither needs the family money.) The blessing seems to identify the son who will carry on the family’s spiritual tradition. The story hints that food is a key to spirituality.
In what way might food be a key to spirituality? Spiritual practices such as meditation, study, music, or prayer have their place. Each one appeals to some people, and turns off some people. Food, on the other hand, is universal. Everyone appreciates eating.
No wonder food is an important part of contemporary Jewish spiritual practice: ritual holiday foods, communal celebratory meals, feeding the hungry, fasts followed by feasts, and more. When I reflect on food and spirituality a few experiences stand out for me. Shabbat dinners, bringing joy; Yom Kippur fasts, bringing empathy for the hungry; and first meals after bouts of illness, bringing gratitude and appreciation for life.
How does food open you to spiritual experience?
Words, Positive and Negative (5773/2012)
Next, his brother came out [of the womb], his hand holding Esav’s heel (ekev), so they called his name Jacob Ya’akov (Bereisheet/Genesis 25:26).
What a fascinating detail about the second twin baby’s birth! In approximately 40% of twin births, both babies present in the headfirst fetal position. But no statistics are available to document how often the second twin extends its arm during the birthing process, opens its tiny curled fist, and closes it again on the nearest tiny object. No wonder the baby’s parents celebrated this amazing oddity in the baby’s name. And no wonder the baby’s unusual name attracted the attention of generations of commentators.
Keli Yakar (1550-1619) notes the etymological connections between words: ekev means “heel” and akvah means “trickery.” Thus, he says, “Ya’akov” means “trickster,” and Ya’akov lives out the destiny of his name. Many of Ya’akov’s accomplishments result when he plays a trick on others; many of his troubles result when others play a trick on him.
Ba’al Haturim (1269-1343) uses gematriya to connect words that have the same numerological value. Ya’akov has the same value as mal’ach Elohim, messenger of God, and hagan eden, the garden of Eden. Though Ya’akov’s life was full of pain and sorrow, he struggled within himself and grew into a master of blessing. He could, with his words, help others discern their own essential natures and find direction.
Two commentators analyzing the same word, each offering a different focus: one finds the troubles implied, and the other finds the blessings. Words hold so many meanings, explicit and implicit! In this week of personal blessings and political troubles, may we be aware of negative rhetoric, and also find positive words of greeting to uplift one another.
Lentil Soup (5771/2010)
Why did Esav sell his birthright to Ya’akov for a bowl of red lentils?
Prepare this recipe for “Birthright Soup” and learn the secrets of Torah.
Soup ingredients: 1 large onion, chopped; 3 tablespoons olive oil; 3 cloves garlic, crushed; 1-1.5 teaspoons ground cumin; 1-1.5 teaspoons ground coriander; pinch of ground chili pepper; 1 cup split red lentils; bunch of celery leaves, chopped; 1 carrot, finely chopped; 2 quarts of chicken stock or vegetarian equivalent; salt and pepper; juice of 0.5-1 lemon.
Garnish: 1 – 2 large onions, sliced; 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil; 1-1.5 pita breads to make croutons (optional); 3 lemons, quartered, to serve with.
Directions: Soften onion in oil in a large saucepan. Add garlic, cumin, coriander, and chili pepper and stir. Add lentils, celery leaves, and carrot, cover with stock, and simmer 30-45 minutes, until the lentils have disintegrated. Add salt and pepper and water if the soup needs thinning. It should be quite thin like light cream. Stir in lemon juice. For garnish, fry onions in oil, covered at first, over low heat, stirring often until crisp and very brown, almost caramelized. Split and open out pita breads and toast in oven or under broiler, turning them over once, until crisp and lightly browned. Break into small pieces with your hands to make croutons. Serve the soup very hot. Garnish each serving with a tablespoon of fried onions and pass the lemon wedges and croutons, if you like for people to help themselves. (Serves 6-8)
Source: received from an unknown cookbook from Dr. Hardin Rubin
Nature, Nurture, or Choice? (5769/2008)
For the first half of their lives, Yaakov and Esav do not get along. How did they become so difficult to get along with: heredity or environment? nature or nurture?
Perhaps it’s just their nature. Rivkah, mother of Yaakov and Esav, pegs their personalities before they are even born. She can tell by the way they kick each other inside her womb that they will be combative children, at odds with one another.
Or perhaps it’s a matter of nurture. Their mother Rivkah favors Yaakov and their father Yitzchak favors Esav. No wonder the boys grow up fighting over who gets the blessing from Mom and Dad.
Yet, in middle age, Yaakov and Esav reconcile. How do they learn to be forgiving? How do they move beyond their early programming, and consciously choose a better life? Esav sees the pain that his first marriage causes his parents, and decides to make a wiser second choice. Yaakov marries into a family where manipulation and exploitation is the norm. After wrestling with himself, he chooses to heal his relationship with Esav.
Torah recognizes that a parent’s legacy, good or bad, can last four generations. But Torah also recognizes that human development is lifelong! From bar mitzvah to old age, each person has the opportunity to reflect, understand, and choose the good.