On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Eikev: A Seat at the Table

A chapter in Parashat Eikev reads, “when you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless.” What does it mean to be satisfied, and what kind of power does a good meal have? Rabbi Jacobs explores this with Aliza Kline, Executive Director of OneTable, an organization that helps Millennials host and attend unique Shabbat dinners so they can make the most of Friday night.

Four ways to listen:


Welcome back to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less.

This week, Rabbi Jacobs is joined by Aliza Klein, a dynamic leader and social entrepreneur. She serves as the founding executive director of OneTable, a platform for millennials to end their week with intention around the Shabbat table. And it's a good week to listen because they're going to talk about Shabbat. And OneTable has already inspired and supported more than 6500 dinners across the country, engaging more than 50,000 young adults, so it seems like they know what they're talking about.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: This week we focus on Parashat Eikev, the third parashah in the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the books of the Torah. Eikev has many different facets, but we’re going to zero in on one verse. It's in the eighth chapter, it's the 10th verse. It's somewhat known in certain Jewish circles, but I'd like to have us explore. The verse is, “V’achalta v’savata u’veracahta.” Three words:  When you have eaten, and are satisfied, you shall bless.

So it is actually the entrée into a whole question about, when do we offer blessings, particularly over food, to say thank you? And it is the opportunity to welcome Aliza Klein, who is someone remarkable, who has been an innovator and a creative force within Jewish life. First at Mayyim Hayyim, this amazing mikvah and community institution in the Boston area. And now with OneTable.

So Aliza, thank you for coming.

Aliza Klein: Thank you for having me.

RRJ: So can we just think for a moment about our table? As maybe in thinking about ancient Jewish life, it was in some ways the next step from the temple altar-

AK: Right.

RRJ: -where offerings were brought. It was the focal point of our very biblical ancestors’ spirituality. And then all of a sudden, temple is destroyed, the Passover Seder is created, and the table becomes a focal point of community, of spirituality, of all these things that now are, I think, bread and butter to you and to many of us who are saying about the regeneration of Jewish life. What do you see in the power of bringing people together to eat a Sabbath meal together? And what goes into it? What's the holiness, what's the eating and being filled and blessing?

AK: There are so many ways to come to the table literally and figuratively. In fact, all the analogies of like, you have a place af the table, you have a seat at the table, they have a very positive resonance and also a sort of demonstration of what happens when you don't.

So if you don't have a seat at the table literally or figuratively, you—it hurts. And you can feel lonely and you don't have a sense of belonging. And one of the things that I can tell you in terms of the context for how OneTable is now approaching dinner and coming together is what's going on broadly among millennials. So it's not just 20s and 30s in general, but 20s and 30s who are now millennials, right? Becoming adults now. And the rates of depression and isolation and addiction to technology are quite high.

And the need for a sense of belonging and being able to like, look at someone in the eye and have a conversation and have a designated space, your own seat where you're either cooking together or enjoying together, and there's a pause, it gives you an opportunity to ignore your texts for a little while and to sort of slow down. And so the need is essential. The ritual for Shabbat dinner comes from way back, right? Like, we've known intuitively that the best way possible for us to build a relationship and to be aware of the presence of God is to enjoy this time together.

But also that it is, on the one hand ,the most natural behavior possible. Everybody needs to eat. On the other hand, it’s not a utilitarian experience, right? We are not eating on Shabbat because we are hungry. And we're actually supposed to eat in an elevated way.

Also, we would normally just keep working. I work all the time, I talk all the time, I move all the time. The requirement to stop and slow down and to do it by eating together in a group with ritual, is—this is not something we would just normally do. In fact, other people who don't, don’t, right? People don't do this. So the fact that it becomes an intentional meal where we are saying, I'm going to sit down on this night of the week, not because it's the most convenient. I'm not time shifting. I've decided that this is the night I'm coming.

So this humility involved in that, there's a commitment involved in that. I'm going to prepare food or at least order in really good food and intentionally set the table and frame it with any kind of ritual or moment of gratitude--that's a whole different setting and it is you know, one of the fullest expression of ritual because it's tactile, it's visceral, and it's personal, it's in your home. There's no like, Shabbat table police.

RRJ: It doesn't also awaken all those fears that people have, you know, I’m like, “God, I’m having these people over, I’m not such a great cook, my tables crooked, and you know I don't know these people that well.”

AK: Yeah

RRJ: Maybe it's going to get really awkward after the first 10 minutes. Do I have to know something about the Jewish ritual? I can do the food part.

AK: Right.

RRJ: But he u’verachata, you know, saying that blessing after the meal, it’s long! And it goes on as all the different, I don't remember the melody from camp, or I never went to camp. How do you deal with the complexity of the Jewish community as it is, where people—some have no baggage because they have no memory and it's intriguing.

Or maybe someone has a lot of baggage, and it’s, “Ugh, I had to go every week to my grandmother’s and I would always get berated because I didn't do well in school that week.” How do you open a whole new chapter with people and say, let's come at this ancient thing in a very different way and leave the baggage.

AK: So I like to joke that in between my work at the mikvah and at OneTable I converted to design thinking. I'm Jewish all the way through but I've added another religion, which is which is design thinking. Which just basically means that I'm not designing for the sake of the ritual or for the sake of the tradition, but for the sake of the person who's coming to the table. So if there is a young woman named Emma who needs to come to a dinner, I want her to be able to end her week with intention and comfort and community. I have to find out, ehy isn't she doing it naturally? What's going on in her life—what does she normally do on Friday night?

RRJ: Let’s unpack that a little bit, because honestly, you're really wise to say that, frankly, people love to know exactly what's going be. So can we know that in gathering a group of people at this moment called Shabbat at—wherever it is, it could be in a park or a restaurant, someone's home. What's the description of a spiritual experience? What is it? Is it food? Is it the people? Is it the singing potentially? Or again, and the promise, can one ever promise that there is going to be a spiritual dimension? And somehow you’d have to find words to describe that.

AK: Right, without saying spiritual.

RRJ: So how would you describe the thing when it happens? Because I think in antiquity, we know what that thing is. It’s a place to encounter God, the deepest truths of our lives, and also the warmth and embrace of community. But is that just other words to talk about spirituality, or is spirituality another layer?

AK: Well, I will tell you the words that they are using. The words that are—we have now had many, many thousands of dinners, more than 6,500 dinners. That's created more than 80,000 seats at the table, close to 90,000, for 50,000 people. So I have—I have a lot of data about how they're describing their meal in advance, and what they what words they use afterward.

They tend to have sort of a lighthearted theme tied to a food, or my friend Leora is in town and we're all going to celebrate, and then we're going to celebrate with Shabbat. And then in the description they'll say, it's a special Shabbat to do X, Y, or Z, because if they're going to go through this process of putting themselves out there and hosting a Jewish event in their home, like, all the different things, then the framing and that kind of theme helps. I say, this is a special thing, you should come for that, it should be a priority.

So in that framing they kind of set whether there is a celebratory tone, is it a resistance tone, is it “we're going to talk about racial justice,” or is it, we're going to try this totally new food that I just created.

The food is absolutely a helpful magnet for people, it gives a good reason for us to sit down. There's amazing data, not from OneTable, but you know, from NPR Science, about when people actually eat together they can get to consensus more quickly. And it doesn't mean we each order different things. It means we are literally eating from the same platter.

So, what we hear in terms of the feedback afterward—what elevated the meal—was the relationships and the connections with the people. The table, whether it's the platform or it's an altar, is created for people to encounter each other. If they're encountering the divine in each other, that's magnificent. They’re not articulating it in those terms. It's an observable sanctity, but a hard to describe one.

RRJ: That’s beautiful. So, I'm thinking about this thing called Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal. Traditionally it actually includes blessings that aren’t only about the food. It's also about our connection to the land, to our ideals, and to each other. We always in the course of the blessing after the meal acknowledge and bless the people. So I would just like to say on behalf of the 21st century Jewish community that is evolving before our eyes, and you have been such an important part of that spiritual regeneration and evolving, that the notion of achalta v’savata u’veracahta, that we have eaten and been fulfilled and then blessed.

First, we bless what has been created, the creator within all things. The food that we taste, that we create, that we share. The relationships that are formed and are deepened. And frankl,y the holiness that we inherit from forms given to us from long ago.

The Shabbat table is an artform. And with art, what happens? You know, you get to do it repeatedly and it deepens each time. What's, what's the possibility here? Because I can't get the art just right. This Friday night, could I?

AK: I just want to give everybody permission. Because you can always try again next week. It is every week, every Friday wherever you are Shabbat goes wherever you go. You don't have to come to Shabbat, it goes with you and it's yours. There's always a constant do-over possibility.

RRJ: Oh, I love that.

It's a blessing to have you in the role that you're in. And thank you for, in this conversation I believe, opening possibilities. And inviting people into this practice which is so fundamental to our core spirituality. And it isn't so complicated, technically. But it does at times make us all feel a bit nervous. So let's open the possibilities as you have done, and I hope that people will enjoy this week if not only one meal, a chance to be with people that you know, people that you'd like to know better. And through this gift of spiritual practice, embodied practice, people, food, places, that we can help regenerate a vision of Jewish life alive and well and continuing to grow and become what it was meant to be. Thank you, Aliza Klein.

AK: Amen!

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including ritual, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot!