THE POT THICKENS
The parsha of Toldot centers around two stews, the actions that accompany each dish connected to the other. The first stew is the focus of the beginning of the parsha (Genesis 25:29-34), "And Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was fatigued. And Esau said to Jacob: 'Let me swallow, please, from this red, red, for I am fatigued.' Therefore, was his name called Edom (Red). And Jacob said: 'Sell me this day your birthright.' And Esau said: 'Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?' And Jacob said: 'Swear as today.' And he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink and got up and went his way. So Esau spurned his birthright."
Why was Jacob, certainly no chef, making a stew? The answer emerges later in the episode when the content of the red mixture is revealed, lentils. Lentils, the flattened, biconvex seeds of a small shrub native to western Asia, were probably the first cultivated legume, their carbonized remains found in the earliest Middle Eastern archeological sites. All lentils, available in an array of colors –- brown, dark-green, orange, pinkish, and red -- are members of the same genus and species. The brown and green varieties, which hold together better during cooking, are the most prevalent in the United States, while the red type, which cook quicker and break down while cooking, is more popular in the Middle East. In many cultures, they were considered poor man's food and generally avoided by the upper and middle classes except at times of severe famine. Perhaps this antipathy partially developed due to a side effect caused by the overconsumption of lentils -- bad breath (Berachot 40a). Therefore, in a well-to-do household such as Abraham's, the presence of lentils, something the Patriarch would not serve to his many guests out of respect, was indicative of something extraordinary. It would certainly offer a simple explanation as to why Esau did not recognize them in the pot and it makes his subsequent selling of the birthright even more telling as it was for such an insignificant dish.
Why lentils and why now? In the words of the Talmud, "It has been taught that that was the day on which Abraham our father died, and Jacob our father made a pottage of lentils to comfort his father Isaac. Why was it lentils? In the West (Israel) they say in the name of Rabbah ben Mari: 'Just as the lentil has no mouth, so the mourner has no mouth.' Others say: 'Just as the lentil is round, so mourning comes round to all the denizens of this world.' What difference does it make which of the two explanations we adopt? The difference arises on the question whether we should comfort with eggs (Baba Bathra 16b)." The Midrash added, "As a lentil is wheel-shaped, so is the world like a wheel. As a lentil has no mouth, so a mourner has no mouth, for a mourner does not speak. As a lentil symbolizes mourning, yet also joy; so here too there was mourning -- because of Abraham's death, and joy -- because Jacob received the birthright (Genesis Rabbah 63:14)." Jacob, in an effort to comfort his father, prepared the traditional mourning dish, something his mother could not do as a wife is excluded from cooking the Seudat Havra'ah (Meal of Consolation).
Jacob and Esau, at the point of Abraham's death, were themselves only fifteen, on the precipice of emerging as very different types of men. Indeed, the Midrash asserted that Abraham died at the age of 175, five years earlier than was intended, so as not to witness his oldest grandson going astray. At this point in his life, Esau was already "a cunning hunter, a man of the field," in comparison to his twin Jacob, "a tam (single-minded or pure) man, dwelling in tents (25:27)." Rashi explained the meaning of "dwelling in tents" as "in the tent of Shem and Ever," a euphemism for studying. According to Rashbam, however, the mention of tents revealed that Jacob was a shepherd and, therefore, remained close to home in contrast to his roving brother. Jacob went into the family business, so to speak. His aptitude can be seen later when he quickly fetched two kids from his flock for his mother and subsequently when he successfully went to work shepherding Laban's livestock. Esau, on the other hand, tended to wander far and wide, both geographically and spiritually. He practiced kivod av (honoring his father) with great devotion, yet proved to be extremely lax in most of the seven Noahide commandments.
Whatever his spiritual state, Esau, who loved his father so intensely, was surely saddened by the loss of a doting grandfather. Perhaps he purposely skipped the funeral to avoid confronting the reality of this loss. Or Esau might have helped bury his grandfather, then afterward his inclination was to go out hunting, behavior made more glaring by the response of his twin who stayed home to tend to their father. In either case, Esau obviously did not join the flow of family and friends surrounding Isaac at this traumatic moment, sharing memories of the departed or simply empathizing to help ease his pain. And when the eldest twin returned home, his only thought was for himself, for his food.
Food is viewed in Judaism as a source of both physical and spiritual sustenance, an integral part of the Jewish religion, associated with many rituals and every life-cycle event. It is essential to the observation of the Sabbath and Jewish festivals, establishing and enhancing the spirit of the day. In light of this relationship with food, it is hardly surprising that the many Jewish laws and customs led to the evolution of a wealth of meaning-laden foods for every occasion. The Torah certainly does not view the enjoyment of good food as wrong and, indeed when Abraham utilized it to serve to his guests (18:8) or at a life-cycle feast (21:8), it promoted the service of God. How a person deals with food, however, can reveal much about their inner self.
Esau was a man of short-term goals ("Here I am going to die") and immediate gratification ("Let me swallow"). Following his fifteen birthday, his life was primarily about the pursuit of sensations -- hunting, eating, clothes (27:15), and women. Thus to Esau's mindset, the lentils were merely "some red stuff," rather than lentils of mourning. According to some commentators, Esau's repetition of "red, red" was not a matter of emphasis, but referred to both the lentils as well as to some wine, which was also customarily given to the bereaved to drink. And when Esau is finished satisfying himself, he "got up and went." He goes off without Nichum Avelim (comforting the mourner). Esau was unable to either articulate his sorrow or use rituals as a language to express his grief.
There is something unexpected in Esau's request, for despite his evident hurry and bluntness, he says "na." This term, like many things in this parsha, can be taken two ways: it usually means please, but can also translate as "raw" (Exodus 12:9). In other words, Esau wanted the stew before it was even fully cooked, which for red lentils is a relatively short time, in as little as ten minutes once the water is boiling. This corresponds to the tenor of the rest of Esau's demand to literally "pour the red stuff down his throat," not even taking time to chew or savor it. And, in fact, since red lentils tend to turn pink or golden as they cook, a red hue would seem to indicate an underdone state. Thus Esau was certainly no gourmand, practically begging to wolf down an undercooked, unsophisticated dish. It was an act of animalistic gratification, far from a spiritual expression and not even a matter of enjoyment.
The Ran (Drashot haRan, drasha 2) explained that Esau's insensitivity upon entering the house of mourning, thinking only of his own hunger and failing to demonstrate the fitting sadness and respect, shocked Jacob and implanted within him the need to acquire the birthright and the concomitant spiritual aspects. To Jacob, the "red stuff" was more than something to fill a stomach, it was a meaningful ritual. With the passing of the founder of the covenantal community, Jacob suddenly became cognizant of the fact that his insensitive brother was directly in line to become the leader. In light of his twin's actions and lack of ability to appreciate ritual, Jacob felt it necessary to take matters into his own hands. In essence, as seen by the wordplay between Esau's description as being a tzaid (hunter) and Jacob's act of zaid (cooking), the hunter becomes the hunted. And Esau's willingness to sell and for such a petty incentive only validated Jacob's misgivings. Thus Jacob's emphasis on "as today," the day of Abraham's funeral and Esau's misdeeds. Interestingly, the clause "So Esau spurned his birthright" at the end of this episode did not specify if it referred to his adjacent act of leaving without comforting his father as the reason for losing the birthright or whether it was a summary statement relating to the entire episode or both.
Pointedly, Jacob first gave his brother bread and then lentils, although Esau only requested the stew. According to Sforno, Jacob was offering Esau, by having assuaged his overwhelming hunger with some bread, an opportunity to back out of the deal. Indeed, the use of the simple past "Ya'akov natan" (Jacob gave) instead of the expected past-perfect "vayiten," indicates that Jacob actually provided Esau with stew as well as the bread before either the offer of the sale or the swearing. Nonetheless, Esau still willingly sold his birthright, a day that reflects an abrupt and immutable change in the relationship between the twins and the future courses of their lives.
Following the death of Abraham, what then ensued for Isaac and his family was an extended period of external strife and internal regression. Not coincidentally, immediately after the above episode, the Torah continued with a food reference, "And there was a famine in the land (26:1)." Fulfilling physical desires ultimately proves empty and unsatisfying unless accompanied by some form of emotional attachment and spiritual connection. The Philistines proceeded to fill up the wells that Abraham had dug and Isaac was forced to dig them again. When Isaac dug new wells, the Philistines repeatedly contested his ownership. And, to make matters worse, Esau took wives who proved "a bitterness of spirit unto Isaac and Rebecca (26:35)."
Forty-eight years after the first stew, "when Isaac was old (27:1)" and nearing the age of his mother's death, he felt it was time to pass on the blessing of the covenantal community. One of his sons, the hunter, made a habit of challenging the world, while the other seemed to be following in his own footsteps, remaining quiet in his tent. Isaac, passive and introspective his entire life and now bereft of his eyesight, perceived Esau's zest for life as a way to reverse what had befallen the family since the death of Abraham. Isaac loved Esau because "tzaid b'peh (25:28)," meaning "there was venison in his mouth," but which the Midrash commented, "he was ensnared by Esau's mouth." Isaac was fooled by Esau's duplicity and by his younger son's quietness (tam). Indeed, Jacob would have to turn into something of a man of the field himself (30:16), in order to fulfill the destiny of the covenantal community.
Senses and sensibility are manifestations that run throughout this parsha. The entire conversation leading up to the blessings entailed various senses -- "Come near, please, that I may feel you," "The voice is the voice of Jacob," "I will eat of my son's venison, that my soul may bless you," "Come near now, and kiss me, my son," "He smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him." Although many Jewish rituals are based on sight, the other senses are also utilized to induce a spiritual response -- the blasts of the shofar, the scents of basamim (spices) for Havdallah, the flavors of the matza and bitter herbs of the Seder. And that is partially why Isaac, whose sight had failed, asked Esau to cook up some venison stew, not for some hedonistic appetite, but to rouse the Ruach Hakodesh (Divine Spirit) within him (similar to II Kings 3:15) in order to give the blessings. Therefore, Isaac said to Esau, "Make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die (27:4)."
Venison, a lean red meat, possesses a delectable earthy quality (a perception of the soil, not dirty) that evokes a sense of the fields and God's creation, the intensity of the flavor varying depending on the species and age. Interestingly, lentils also have a somewhat earthy flavor, which possibly brings up another reason why they became a mourning food, summoning a sense of the place from which we came and will return. Isaac knew that certain tastes and smells could evoke the aroma of the Garden of Eden, the place of the original blessing and where the covenantal community would some day lead.
Rebecca, who saw her sons more clearly than her husband, had other plans and cooked up her own stew. Goat, by the way, when young, has a delicate-tasting meat with a texture similar to wild game and a milder flavor than lamb. This was one reason why Rebecca instructed Jacob, "Go now to the flocks, and fetch me from there two good kids from the goats; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves (27:9)." It should also be noted that Rebecca made this stew, as Jacob was hardly accustomed to fine cooking. Esau, on the other hand, was the one who cooked for his father. Unlike his twin, however, Jacob understood the spiritual as well as the physical dimensions of food and that a pot of lentils can be a lot more than some red stuff.
Here are a few traditional lentil recipes.
(6 to 8 servings)
1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic and sauté until softened (5 to 10 minutes). Stir in the cumin or paprika.
2. Add the broth, lentils, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the lentils are very tender (about 30 minutes).
3. Puree the soup. Return to the pot, add the flour mixture, and simmer until thickened. Serve warm.
Omit the flour, reduce the lentils to 1 cup, and add ¼ cup long-grain rice with the lentils.
(6 to 8 servings)
the Indian word for lentils, refers to a dish of cooked lentils, split peas,
or beans. Serve very thin dal
as a soup, medium thin dal with vegetables as a dip, and thick dal as a side
dish. In India, dal is a common
accompaniment to curry dishes.
2 cups (about 1 pound) dried
1 teaspoon garam masala
teaspoon ground cumin or coriander or ¾ teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons curry powder
4 cups water
1. Wash the lentils well, cover with water, and soak over night. Drain and rinse well. (Soaking helps the lentils to hold their shape.)
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet or pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent (5 to 10 minutes). Stir in your choice of spice mixtures and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Stir in the lentils. Add the water (add a little more water to make a soup), cloves, cinnamon stick, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until very tender (about 1 hour). Discard the cloves, cinnamon, and bay leaves.
4. Add salt to taste. If desired, stir in the cilantro. Serve at room temperature or chilled. For a side dish, serve with rice and raita (yogurt salad). For soup, top with dollops of sour cream or yogurt.
Dal: Sauté 2 minced cloves garlic and 1 teaspoons grated fresh ginger in 1
tablespoon hot oil until fragrant and stir into the cooked lentils.
Split Pea Dal (Arhar Dal): Use 2 cups (about 1 pound) dried yellow split
peas and 6 cups boiling water. Cover,
reduce the heat to low, and simmer until soft (2 to 2½ hours).
with Lemon: Add 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice to the cooked lentil
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent (5 to 10 minutes). Add the garlic, turmeric or chili powder, cumin, coriander or paprika, and cayenne and stir until fragrant (about 1 minute).
2. Add the water, lentils, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the lentils are very tender and most of the liquid has evaporated (about 45 minutes).
3. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir until the lentils are dry (about 3 minute). Discard the bay leaf, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
4. Stir the mashed potato and parsley into the lentil mixture. Form the lentil mixture into six ½-inch-thick patties. (The patties may be prepared ahead to this point and refrigerated up to 6 hours.)
5. Heat ¼-inch oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
6. Fry the patties, turning, until golden brown on both sides (about 3 minutes per side). If desired, serve with sour cream, yogurt, or chutney or sprinkle with lemon juice.
Lentil Patties: Press 1 cup bread crumbs lightly onto patties before frying.
Or dredge patties in ¼ cup all-purpose flour.
Lentil Patties: Add 3 coarsely chopped huevos haminados (Sephardic
hard-cooked eggs) with the potatoes.
Patties: Omit the potatoes/bread crumbs.
Add 1 cup (6 ounces/170 grams) bulgur soaked in 2 cups water until
softened and drained and 1 lightly beaten egg.
Patties: Omit the potatoes/bread crumbs.
Add 2/3 cup (2 ounces) grated Monterey Jack cheese, 2 tablespoons
flour, and 1 lightly beaten large egg.
Patties: Add 3 cups chopped fresh mushrooms sautéed in 1 tablespoon
vegetable oil until the moisture evaporates (about 15 minutes).
(Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to email@example.com)
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.