Shlach: Bread and Surfeits

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

Greetings from (occasionally) sunny Massachusetts ! This week’s Torah
portion is Shlach-Lecha, which means “send for yourself,” words which
occur in the first sentence of the portion and begin the story of the
spies who are sent up to the Land of Israel. Well, that didn’t go so
well, but afterwards, the Israelites received various laws concerning
agricultural offerings, how to make atonement, the Sabbath, and
tzitzit, or ritual fringes.

Many of us think of challah as the braided bread eaten on Shabbat and
festivals, but the word “challah” (also sometimes transliterated as
hallah, but it’s really a guttural “kh” ) actually signifies a mitzvah
performed in the preparation of the bread, not the bread itself. Among
the various offerings discussed in the latter part of Shlach-Lecha is
the law of separating out a bit from our “baking:”

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and
say to them: When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of
bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord: as
the first yield of your baking, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift;
you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing
floor. You shall make a gift to the Lord from the first yield of your
baking, throughout the ages.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:17-21)

The rabbis understood the phrase “first yield” to mean you separate
out a bit while it’s still in the first stages of baking- that is, the
dough. There are various laws which specify how much and when and
under what conditions this mitzvah applies, but for now, suffice it to
say that it’s still a rabbinic law to separate out a little piece of
dough from kosher bread. We can’t give it to the priests anymore,
since their aren’t any, so this little bit of dough is simply
separated and discarded. Thus, “challah” has become a label which
means “bread from which challah has been taken”- that is, bread which
has had this little piece taken from the dough (assuming it’s a kosher
or observant baker.)

If you’re baking at home, you do the same thing- you take a little
piece of the dough and just toss it in the back of the oven, then
discard it later. You might hear this called “taking challah,” and
applies today as a reminder of Biblical practices and a connection to
the special blessings of the Land of Israel.

OK, so it’s nice to remember the past, and it’s certainly important to
remember the special blessings of the Land of Israel, but does taking
a bit of dough out of my nice Cuisinart bread machine mean more than a
remembrance of something ancient and far away? (Not that remembering
things ancient and far away aren’t in themselves part of spiritual
growth.) Well, as I see it, the mitzvah of taking challah is directly
connected to the idea of “when you enter the Land,” in the first verse
of our passage above. The “Promised Land” wasn’t just a safe haven
from slavery, it was also a place where the Israelites could enjoy
material blessings and prosperity.

Precisely because the inheritors of the Land would be the descendants
of traumatized slaves, it’s powerful to me that there are so many
agricultural, Israel-based mitzvot which teach us to appreciate that
we have enough (bread, fruit, oil, wine, animals, money) to give away.
One legacy of trauma and deprivation is a constant fear that there’s
never enough- taking just a little piece of challah is another
reminder that the inheritors of the Land would in fact, have enough.
What was true then is true now- we, too, need reminders that we
usually have more material abundance than we truly need, and must
therefore give some away in order to live a spiritually meaningful
life, a life which is not ruled by fear or greed, but is increasingly
generous and giving.

To that end, the mitzvah of challah seems to be based in the principal
that feelings follow actions- that is, one might not feel generous or
blessed, but in the very act of giving, come to appreciate the
sufficiency of one’s blessings. In AA, this is sometimes called “act
as if”- that is, act as if you have enough to give away, and you will
almost certainly come to learn that you do. (At least for most of us
in modern day North America.) Separating out a little bit of dough is
another way that Judaism teaches us that we are given in order that we
may give, and in the very act of giving, we come to appreciate the
gifts that life has afforded us. Challah a small piece of dough, but
teaches a major principal of the spiritual life.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- the text of the portion is here:

and a summary and further commentary can be found here:

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