Parashah R'eih: Making Sacred Food Choices

August 20, 2014Rabbi Debra Landsberg

A b’rachah (blessing) isn’t enough. Anytime we delve into Torah study, we need more than the b’rachah over study; we need words of strength to brace ourselves, as we engage in Torah’s complexity.

In The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices, Hebrew University Bible professor Israel Knohl describes the challenging, often contradictory theological and spiritual impulses in Torah as “the divine symphony.” The task set before lovers of Torah is to “learn to listen to the various parts of the symphony, each instrument speaking out from an array of ideological possibilities and often in discord with one another.”

In reading Rabbi Shira Milgrom’s d’var Torah this week, however, I think of Torah more as a tapestry than a symphony. Rabbi Milgrom beautifully reflects on one strand that weaves its way through the various books of Torah. It concerns our choices regarding what and how we eat, connecting us with earthly creatures around us and tying us to the Source of all life. And we recognize – given the overwhelming choices many of us face in the market, from “free-range” to “non-GMO” to “hormone free” to “kosher organic” – that this strand of spiritual teaching is capturing the broader cultural imagination today.

Yet our parashah (Torah portion) can also unnerve us. For in R’eih, the “food” strand of Torah wisdom is tightly woven between strands about otherness and separation.

For you are a people consecrated to the Eternal your God: the Eternal your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be a treasured people” (Deuteronomy 14:2).

This declaration speaks to the detailed obligations to radically differentiate the Jewish people from those around them. Torah’s words are brutally clear, from “beware of being lured into their ways” (Deuteronomy 12:30) to “Stone that [Israelite] to death for having sought to make you stray from the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thus all Israel will hear and be afraid...” (Deuteronomy 13:11-12)”

What does it mean that these two strands are woven together in our parashah? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps Torah is a symphony, and in our portion we hear both the tuba and the piccolo, each playing its own part. However, if Torah is a tapestry, then the weaving together of the strands of sacred food choices and profound affiliation with the Jews must capture our attention. Of the bounty from which we can partake, are there decisions we can make solely as acts of Jewish particularism?

Rabbi Debra Landsberg is the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Toronto, Canada.

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