Feeding God Then and Now

Parashat Emor / פרשת אמור
Torah Portion: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

 (The priests) are holy to their God and you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God…. (Leviticus 21:7-8)

That God has no physical body is widely considered a basic tenet of Judaism and is enshrined in Moses Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.[1] If one were not aware of this tenet, however, one could be led to believe by this week’s parasha that God has not only a nose to smell the pleasing odor of sacrifices but also a mouth and digestive tract with which to consume “the food of your God” offered by the priests! Lest we think for a moment, though, that the Torah is speaking literally about God’s ability to smell, taste and digest food, modern commentators make it very clear that the Torah is speaking symbolically.[2] Biblical Israel most certainly worships God, who “desires their devotion and fellowship” only.[3] The biblical author simply borrowed “the idiom common to ancient religions” of a god sustained by offerings of food.[4]

The symbolic nature of “the food of God,” notwithstanding, I find this imagery striking given the role food played in the culture of biblical Israel as well the role it plays among societies throughout the world today. Regarding the former, one need only recall how Abraham and Sarah hastened to serve their guests a lavish meal in Genesis 18:1-8. What began with the intention to fetch his unexpected guests “a morsel of  bread,” soon became cakes of choice flour, curds, milk and a calf served as Abraham “waited on them under a tree as they ate” (Gen. 18:8). Abraham and Sarah, thus, instituted the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, with food playing a central role in its fulfillment.

Are we really any different today? We continue to honor visitors to our homes by setting out a nosh, if not an entire meal. Outside of the United States, in fact, hospitality is so closely linked with family honor that one refuses an invitation to another’s home at peril of insulting them greatly. As a species, to be sure, one way human beings show honor and respect to others is by feeding them and by graciously receiving others’ hospitalityin return.

To my mind, when we humans feed one another, we give expression to the same ideals expressed through the biblical sacrificial system. There, burnt offerings emitted a reach nichoach ladonai, a pleasing odor to God. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, observes that the ancient rabbis made a word play of “reach nichoach” to get at what was really at stake in the sacrificial rituals:

An early midrashic work after the destruction of the Second Temple reconceptualized the nature of its cultic worship. Brilliantly, the midrash realized that “nihoah” (pleasant aroma) is related etymologically to the word “nahat” or in the rabbinic phrase “nahat ruah” (pleasant feeling). That connection enabled the midrash to read “reah nihoah” as “nahat ruah.” The satisfaction God experienced at the sight of the sacrifice was internal and spiritual: “I commanded and My will was done,” says the midrash. In other words, the cult had nothing to do with divine need. Israel had submitted to God’s will, whatever its intent, and that alone was the source of God’s pleasure.[5]

When we feed others, no doubt, it often is to satisfy someone’s need, but just as often it is to please them. Thus, what we do within the community of humankind mirrors the ancient rite to evoke God’s pleasure; both involve the provision of nachat ruach.

This relationship between real human hospitality and priestly sacrifice, with all its symbolism, has the power to transform us. If we see “the other” as created in God’s image, then the hospitality we extend to our neighbor is no different from the rituals through which the holy priests showed God their deference and devotion. In both cases, then and now, we please God. In both cases, setting out food is a sacred act, the execution of which imbues our lives with holiness.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

[1] For a list of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, see http://www.jewfaq.org/beliefs.htm. As Daniel Septimus points out in his article at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-thirteen-principles-of-faith/, Maimonides principles were not universally accepted, including the principle #3 on incorporeality.

[2] See, for example, Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 718: “Offerings to God, often called “food” (lehem), are considered food for God in a symbolic sense. See also this article by Ismar Schorsch: https://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/ParashahArchives/5760/emor.shtml.

[3] The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, p. 17, cf Lev. 3:11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ismar Schorsch, commentary on Parashat Emor at https://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/ParashahArchives/5760/emor.shtml

Transforming Hospitality from Good to Sacred

Parashat Vayera / פרשת וירא

Torah Portion: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Hospitality, hachnasat orchim, is an important Jewish value that is rooted in this week’s Torah portion. Here Abraham and Sarah demonstrate the kind of gracious and loving care for strangers that our tradition says we should all show. As with all mitzvot, though, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Abraham and Sarah may be nice people who are naturally inclined to extend themselves to people in need, but they are also executing what we believe is God’s will. In this respect, they are performing a sacred act, which we are to copy in our own lives.

Our portion begins:

The Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”

Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate. (Genesis 18:1-8)

There is much to learn from this short vignette. First, Abraham rushes to meet his guests, whom we later discover are angels, where they are. Abraham doesn’t just sit in one spot until the men approach him. Rather, he gets up and runs toward them. Abraham’s eagerness here is remarkable in it’s own right, but doubly so because, according to our sages, he had circumcised himself as a sign of entering into a covenant with God only three days earlier! Not only does Abraham hasten to greet his guests, he does so while presumably enduring a great deal of pain. Rather than use his circumstances as an excuse to withhold hospitality, he sets thoughts of his own physical condition aside and, with the aid of Sarah and a servant, tends to the three strangers. Like Abraham and Sarah, we must see beyond ourselves when we welcome strangers into our lives.

Then Abraham makes his guests feel welcomed and comfortable. He washes their feet, a common welcoming ritual in Abraham’s world, and feeds his visitors well. It might be easier to share with the men leftovers or items that are readily available, but instead Abraham treats his guests as if they were family who had traveled a great distance to celebrate a festival. Abraham and Sarah are intentional and generous in their hospitality. They treat their guests not like casual passersby but like royalty. Like Abraham and Sarah, we must see guests and strangers as made in God’s image, as worthy of great respect.

Finally, it is notable where Abraham situates his guests, at the entrance to his tent under the shade of a tree. He performs the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim in plain view of his neighbors. By doing so, Abraham is able to inspire those near him to similarly extend hospitality when they are able to do so. Had he brought his guests into his tent, no one outside the tent could have known the great extent to which Abraham and Sarah would go to care for their visitors. As the founding father and mother of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah surely understood that they had a special responsibility to show others what it is that God expects of them. Like Abraham and Sarah, we too should strive to model hachnasat orchim in its richest sense.

In the anthology of commentary to the Book of Genesis known as Bereishit Rabbah, our sages teach that God’s visit to Abraham through the angels shows that Abraham had become “a chariot of the Divine Presence” on which God’s very being rested (Art Scroll Humash, p. 78). In other words, with every act of hospitality – from noticing the visitors, to greeting them, to feeding and caring for them, and later to escorting them on their way — Abraham had become a vehicle for bringing God’s presence into the world.

The lesson for us is simple. It is good to be nice to strangers and guests, but when we truly invest our whole beings in their care, such as Abraham and Sarah did for their guests, our hospitality goes from being good to being sacred, from being a nice thing to do to being a mitzvah. May we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, opening our hearts and our homes to all in need and increasing God’s loving presence in our world.

Shabbat Shalom.