Parshat Toldot describes the origin of the age-old, apocalyptic struggle between the forces of Yaakov and those of Eisav and, interestingly, they all revolve around food.
The parsha begins by describing Eisav selling his birthright to Yaakov. It was the day of Avraham’s funeral. Our Sages say Avraham died on that day so that he would not have to witness his grandson Eisav’s move to the “dark side.” On that day, Eisav committed the three cardinal sins: adultery, murder and idol worship (Rabbeinu Bachya). Yaakov was preparing the traditional dish of mourning – beans (stew), and in return for the stew (and bread), Eisav sold his birthright to Yaakov.
Later in the parsha, we read about Yaakov “impersonating” Eisav at his mother Rivka’s bidding in order to receive his father Yitzchak’s blessing. Again, the context is food-related.
The Sages tell us that Yitzchak was preparing to conduct a Pesach Seder. There is a debate in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 11a) regarding the month in which the world was created – Nisan or Tishrei. According to Tosefot (ibid.), the world was conceived in Tishrei but physically created in Nisan. Yitzchak knew that this was a time when the gates of Heavenly abundance were open, and for this reason he wanted to bless his firstborn, Eisav, with a blessing of material prosperity. Even today when we celebrate Pesach, the seven days of the festival are a period in which the gates of abundance are open more than the norm and it is for this reason some have the custom to eat a key (schlissel) challah on the Shabbat after Pesach, to reopen (or to keep open) these Heavenly gates of prosperity.
This is not the first Pesach Seder mentioned in the Torah; that was when the three angels visited Avraham and he instructed Sarah to make matzos. The Sages say it was Pesach. However, this Seder of Yitzchak in our parsha is the first time in the Torah where all the elements of the Seder are spelled out as opposed to only matzos.
Yitzchak instructs Eisav to go hunt and prepare food for him so that he may bless him. Yitzchak’s instructions leave us with little doubt that he knew exactly who his son Eisav was. He was meticulous in spelling out that he wanted the animal slaughtered according to the halacha, something he would not have done if he thought his son was a talmid chacham who respected the laws of the Torah.
While Eisav is out, Rivka quickly prepares two goats, one for the Korban Pesach and the second for the Korban Chagiga, according to our Sages. When Yaakov enters the tent, he also takes with him wine and bread (matzos). True, it does not mention bitter herbs – Yitzchak didn’t need them, he had enough bitterness from Eisav. (It also doesn’t mention kneidlach.)
From this episode, the Sages learn a fundamental principle about blessings. Later, when Yitzchak gives Yaakov the spiritual blessing before he leaves to go to Charan, no food is involved. Here, however, to be able to bless Eisav with a material blessing, the presence of food is a prerequisite.
The Sages teach us that there are two types of creation. The first is creating something from nothing, and the second is creating something based on something that already exists. Creating something from nothing can only be performed by Hashem; this was the type of creation in Bereishit. For humans to bless, to create, there must first be some existing basis, a seed out of which the blessing can grow and blossom. Similarly, when Hashem gives us a material blessing, there must already be some basis, seed, present.
Therefore, when Yitzchak blessed Yaakov with the intended, spiritual blessing it was because Yaakov already possessed the basis, the seed of spirituality that would subsequently grow and flourish. Such a blessing would have been wasted on Eisav since he had no basis for it. Similarly, to bless Eisav with the material blessing, there had to be material food present to serve as the basis for the blessing.
A similar principle is also applied in the Beit HaMikdash. The Shulchan Lechem Hapanim is a blessing for material abundance. Such a material blessing requires the presence of a seed from which the blessing may grow. This seed is the Lechem Hapanim. For this reason, it is imperative that Lechem Hapanim be perpetually present on the Shulchan to facilitate the 24/7 blessing of abundance for Am Yisrael and through them, the entire world. If the table is empty, even for a second, that blessing is interrupted. Therefore, when the stacks of Lechem Hapanim are switched every Shabbat, they are switched in such a way that the Shulchan is never empty. The new loaves are slid on simultaneously with the old loaves being slid off.
This principle is also applicable today regarding Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals). It is a halacha (Shulchan Aruch 180, a-b) that while reciting Birkat Hamazon there must be bread present on the table; the table should not be empty. One should therefore not remove the challah from the table until Birkat Hamazon is completed.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: If Eisav asked for only stew in return for the birthright, why did Yaakov give him stew and bread?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: What were the words of Avraham’s eulogy to his wife Sarah? The immortal words recorded by Shlomo HaMelech (Mishlei 31:10-31) were Avraham’s eulogy to Sarah. We know them today as Eishet Chayil, the song sung by husbands in praise of their wives every Friday night.