Don’t Forget the Lentils
By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
What about the lentils?
“Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished’- which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ And Esau said, ‘I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright” (Gen 25:29-34, New JPS translation).
We, along with the commentators, tend to focus on the people in this and other biblical stories, trying to gain insight into the meaning of the text and its meaning in our lives. But tradition reminds us that every word in the Torah matters and also that G!d is the Source of all, the Creator of all. In our story in this week’s parashah, the lentils are part of what Arthur Green calls the “endless stream of creativity” of which every aspect of the universe is a part.
So what can we learn from the lentils, containers of Divine energy?
First of all, our text approaches these legumes slowly. The text first refers to the meal Jacob is cooking as “stew.” Next, Esau calls it “red stuff” – ha’adom hazeh. We remember that these legumes are reddish, that in many places in the near East the soil is reddish, and that adom – red – is also related to the words adam Â- person, and adamah - earth. Only when Jacob gives the food to his brother do we learn that this is a “lentil stew.” This gradual approach is reminiscent of our approach to prayer in our daily services, as we gradually warm up to our greatest intensity of conversation with the Holy One.
Rashi reminds us of the text from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 16b, “Just as a turning wheel touches every spot on the ground, so too, does mourning touch everyone sooner or later,” and since “the lentil has no mouth” (Bava Batra, 16b) and a mourner, who is not to greet people, in essence also has no mouth, lentils are an appropriate food for mourners.
The presence of lentils in our most ancient text is an indicator that they are an ancient food source. In fact, they were one of the earliest plants brought into cultivation. Modern archeological evidence shows their presence in the earliest Neolithic farming villages of the Near East about 10,000 years ago, and there is evidence of their presence in Ein Gedi about 6,000 years ago. And yet, they still grow wild, and researchers have been crawling on their hands and knees in wild spots of Israel – the Judean Hills, the slopes of Mt. Hermon, the Galilee – searching for these plants in order to try to understand their relationship to their domesticated relatives and the process of their evolution. The seeds of wild lentils, both ancient and modern, are tiny, but through cultivation they increased in size to something more useful as food.
The scientists were crawling on their hands and knees, because, “lowly as a lentil” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 2:5) both describes its growth and made it a reminder of modesty. This lowly plant, growing close to the ground as a modern cultivar may be 20 inches tall, but in the wild, even today, may be as little as 3 inches tall.
The genus name for all the species of lentils is Lens, from the Latin, which describes the lens-shaped nature of a half of a lentil seed – rounded on one side and flat on the other, like a lens. The modern Hebrew word adashah – lens – is the same as the biblical word for lentil. Perhaps lentils have something to teach us about seeing, about opening up to the understanding of the presence of the Divine even in this lowly legume. For where would our story be without the lentil stew?
Today, interest in lentils and other legumes is renewed because they are a good-tasting, high-fiber, non-meat source of protein. The meat for an equivalent stew would require an estimated seven times the land, 200 times the water, and 75 times the energy to produce. Lentils are grown throughout the world. Pullman, WA, even has an annual lentil festival! In Judaism, a new tradition is arising of eating lentil stew on Shabbat Toldot. At one time, lentils were considered “poor-man’s meat,” and they were not eaten on Shabbat, but as we try to renew our connections to the Earth and increase the ability of the land to sustain and nourish us, maintaining a plant-based diet is one way to move in that direction. Plus, our sages teach us that Shabbat is to be a full body experience; we are to see and smell and hear and let our bodies totally enter into the experience of this holy day of rest. Having our Shabbat meal connect to our Torah portion and to the ancient land of Israel can enhance that full-body experience. Torah, the Earth, and our personal experience, all wrapped up in one.
On this Shabbat Toldot, as we eat our “stew,” our “red stuff,” our “lentil stew,” may we approach it slowly, as a prayer and as a reminder of the connections between the stories of our lives, the stories of our text, and the stories of the Earth.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (AJR ’05) is a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the founder and leader of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, a congregation that holds services outdoors all year round as a way to help people connect their own stories, the stories of our texts, and the stories of the Earth.