Living the Bible with Lentils and Tea
November 20, 2020
By Leslie Shuman Kramer

This week’s parasha, Toldot, covers the well-known story of Jacob and Esau, fraternal twins who were very different from one another. Esau was a hunter, and gruff, and Jacob was more gentle and learned. It’s the story of deception-by both their mother, Rebecca, to her husband Isaac, and by Jacob to both Esau and Isaac. It’s a story of a family lacking open, honest communication. Didn’t Rebecca receive a message when she was pregnant, that her sons would fight and struggle and would each lead a nation? She was told that the younger son would rule over the elder. Perhaps if she had shared that information with Isaac, together they might have come up with an honest solution to the question of the birthright. But scholars are pretty much in agreement that she never shared that information with her husband. In fact, it seems the two of them did not have what we would consider an open and honest marriage. As a result of their actions, the succession plan for our people was based on trickery and anger, even hatred, and the repercussions were felt for generations.

There are so many lessons here, and while the stories in the Torah are ancient I constantly marvel at their relevance and applicability to our lives today. Happily, that includes the food. In Toldot, Esau famously traded his birthright for a bowl of Jacob’s delicious lentil stew that Esau, famished from a hunting trip, smelled upon his return home. The thing is, we can relate to the story!  In fact, just last night we had—you guessed it—lentil stew for dinner. I am not kidding. And it was purely coincidental:  I hadn’t yet reminded myself of this week’s parasha. Furthermore, odds are that we will have it again tonight as leftovers.  Lentil stew or soup is a staple in our household all winter. How incredible that in Amherst, NY, in 2020, we eat the same food that our patriarchs/matriarchs ate. It also so happens that I use a lot of middle eastern spices in my cooking, so I think there would be a lot of the exact same ingredients in Jacob’s and my recipe.   What an incredible, real connection between my family and Isaac and Rebecca’s.

A number of years ago we visited our daughter Leah who was studying in Israel on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. We took a road trip to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev desert, having heard about Makhtesh Ramon.

Although it’s called a crater, Makhtesh Ramon is actually a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single “wadi” (riverbed). It is the world’s largest makhtesh, at 25 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest point. 

Makhtesh Ramon is a geologists’ paradise with fossils, rock formations and volcanic and magmatic phenomenon dating back as much as 220 million years.

On our visit, we took a jeep tour into the makhtesh where our guide, Misha, pointed out the various flora and fauna. What seemed at first glance to be a barren desert is actuality teeming with life. 

The highlight for me came when we stopped and got out of the jeep, taking a short hike around the area. Resting in the shade of a scraggly tree, Misha produced a camp stove and teapot.  Gathering herbs growing within arm’s reach, he crumbled them and dropped them into our tea cups, then poured the water to steep.  While we sipped our tea, he explained that our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived and traveled through the Negev. It’s possible, he said, that one of them crossed the very spot where we sat. They may have even rested under a tree just like this one, Misha said.  I asked if Misha thought that our ancestors might have made tea from the same type of herbs used in the tea we were sipping. “I don’t think so, I know so” he said.

This is one of my favorite memories from that day, because it so viscerally connected us to the history of the place and to our past. I marveled that here we were, drinking the exact tea that our forefathers and mothers had drunk.

There are important lessons in Toldot about human relationships, power and control. And, still, there is connection through the simple things, like the famous lentil meal. 

Next week, as we celebrate our American Thanksgiving, we’ll eat the food that connects us to the Pilgrims’ story. Perhaps we’ll slip in a special something to remind us of our ancient stories as well.   Check out this week’s Nosh of the Week for a little inspiration.

Leslie Shuman Kramer is the President of the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

Living the Bible with Lentils and Tea - Jewish thought of the week graphic