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Do we know who grows our food? Does it matter?
This question was first raised for me five years ago when I was the Campus Rabbi at England’s Cambridge University. Invited to High Table dinner with the professors at one of the colleges, I was surprised to discover that most of the conversation among some of Britain’s leading minds revolved around the food.
“This venison’s inedible,” complained an irascible professor of physics.
“Absolutely,” agreed an elderly Nobel Laureate. “We had a cook here in the seventies who would never serve an animal he didn’t know personally.”
“Quite right too.”
As I smugly ate my triple-plastic wrapped kosher airline meal, the idea of having a relationship that is in any way personal with one’s food or the people who grow it seemed quaintly ridiculous. However, the preeminent Torah commentator Rashi on this week’s Torah portion of Vayehi suggests otherwise.
When Jacob on his deathbed blesses his sons, he highlights characteristics that are unique to each of them and to the tribes of their descendants. According to Rashi, five of these blessings focus on the agricultural specificity of each tribe’s territory in the Land of Israel.
For example, in Judah’s blessing, “Binding his foal to the vine…he washes his garments in wine (Genesis 49:11),” Rashi comments based on the Midrash, “It was prophesied about the Land of Yehuda that it will gush forth wine like a fountain.”
On the promise, “Zebulun shall dwell at the edge of the sea. His will be a shore for ships (Genesis 49:13)” Rashi remarks, “He will always be found on the shores by the ports to which ships bring merchandise.”
Similarly, interpreting the blessing to Isaachar, “He saw a resting place, that it was good, and the land that it was pleasant (Genesis 49:15),” Rashi writes, “He saw that his part of the land was blessed and would produce good fruit.” Isaachar, whose tribe’s destiny was traditionally understood as immersion in Torah learning, rejoiced in a portion where ready-to-eat food grew in abundance and devotion to study would be practical.
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