Between the Lines—Va-yera

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman


Genesis Rabbah 48:11

ואקחה פת לחם וסעדו לבכם אחר תעבורו א״ר יצחק בתורה ובנביאים ובכתובים מצינו דהדא פיתא מזוניתא דליבא בתורה מנין ואקחה פת לחם וסעדו לבכם בנביאים (שופטים יט) סעד לבך פת לחם בכתובים (תהלים קד) ולחם לבב אנוש יסעד

And let me fetch you a piece of bread that you may refresh yourselves (lit. "satisfy your hearts"); then go on . . . (Gen. 18:5) Rabbi Isaac said: In the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings we find that bread strengthens the heart. From where in the Torah: . . . let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may satisfy your hearts. In the Prophets: . . . Eat some bread to give your heart strength, [then you can leave.] (Judg. 19:5) In the Writings: [You make the grass grow for cattle] . . . and bread that sustains man's heart. (Ps. 104:15)

On its face, this midrash may seem to state the obvious: that eating bread gives one energy. After all, a look at our food packaging today reveals the ingredients and nutrients contained in any given product. This text, however, teaches that not all nourishment comes in physical form. The deceptively simple statement that "bread strengthens the heart" and the prooftexts that follow it actually provide a subtle commentary to the notion that "man does not live on bread alone" (Deut. 8:3); indeed, we derive sustenance at least as much from our gratitude for the company we keep and for the blessing of hospitality.

To support his insight about a staple food, Rabbi Isaac cites three verses that each use three key terms: the nouns lechem (bread) and lev (heart) and the verb root sa'ad (satisfy/sustain). In fact, the similar contexts of the first two cases highlight the message of the third. Both the verse from this week's Torah portion and Judges 19:5 represent invitations from a host (first Abraham, then a nameless Bethlehemite) to wayfarers to eat before or after undertaking a journey. Both cases demonstrate hachnassat orchim, the mitzvah of welcoming guests into one's home. By breaking bread together, the hosts and visitors forge a bond with one another. While this act exemplifies biblical graciousness, it also reflects an awareness of the spiritual ecology as depicted above in the verse from Psalm 104. God is ultimately the source of all sustenance, whether for grazing animals or in partnership with humans at every stage of growing, harvesting, and producing food.

It is interesting to note that birkat hamazon (the blessing after a meal) only mentions lechem once, even though eating bread is what distinguishes a meal from a snack. In the closing lines of the Ashkenazic version of this prayer, many declare that "I have been young and am now old, but I have never seen a righteous man abandoned, or his children seeking bread" (Ps. 37:25). I justify reciting this shocking verse as a vow that, having been fed ourselves, it is our obligation to feed as many others as possible. Perhaps that is why we conclude by praying, "God give strength to His people . . . " (Ps. 29:11).

I really like what we find here. The midrash seems to be pointing out that we can learn from Abraham: we are to give a gift to God when we receive good news. How do you give God a gift? In Abraham's time there were sacrifices, but we no longer have such offerings. In truth, we see this type of gift giving to God all around us. When we make tribute donations to our synagogues in honor of a simhah, when we encourage b'nai mitzvah to commit to a mitzvah project, we are giving gifts to God in honor of good news.

It is lovely to find a custom where we celebrate our good fortune by sharing it with others. And while we are familiar with these customs, it is even nicer to think that they date back to the first Jew, Abraham, in the moment that he gets his charge here in Lekh Lekha, making it (midrashically, anyway) one of the first mitzvot. I hope we all have good news coming our way and that we remember to give gifts of celebration.