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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Parashat Shlach Lecha, Numbers 13:1-15:41

The human being is the challah of the world.

Why is the price of bread so important? What is the value of a loaf of bread? Bread is
a commodity in the consumer price index of many nations. The price of bread is used
as a comparative measure of the standard of living. Are you better off than a medieval
peasant? A comparison of what you pay for bread and what the peasant paid for a
similar loaf will let you know. Bread lines form when wages disappear, and in
desperate times the bread lines can turn into bread riots. The Speenhamland
allowance system, enacted in England in 1795, was meant to avoid such rioting by
supplementing the breadwinner's ability to feed his family. During the Weimar
Republic in 1920’s Germany, hyperinflation raised the cost of bread from less then
one mark to trillions of marks. We all know how this affected the political scene.

Because bread is such a basic necessity, its importance is more than physical or
material. Lack of bread can topple governments, cause wars and mark a person for
life. In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry relative
kept Jean Valjean imprisoned for years and marked him as a thief. An overflowing
breadbox can keep you in power, as David demonstrated in his celebration of bringing
the Ark to Jerusalem: And he distributed among all the people – the entire multitude
of Israel, man and woman alike – to each a loaf (challat) of bread…(2 Samuel 6:19).
Surely one of the strongest bonds created among people is by "breaking bread;" and
what would Shabbat be without challah?

In the book of Genesis, bread is the result of hard work, though the description of how
it is obtained is presented as a punishment accompanying the exile from Eden:
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground —
For from it you were taken. (Genesis 3:19).

As we've already seen elsewhere in the Torah, bread represents God's bounty, and
the lack of bread is punishment for transgressions. For us, bread is symbolic of good
times (challah) and bad (matzah), but in the Torah both leavened and unleavened

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bread have positive connotations and are offered to God. And if you bring a sacrifice
of a meal offering baked in the oven, it shall be unleavened cakes (challot) of fine
flour mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers
(rekikot) anointed with oil. (Leviticus 2:4)
Why focus on bread this week? After all, Shlach lecha contains the dramatic events
surrounding the scouts’ exploration of the land of Israel and the report they bring
back: It's a wonderful land, but it is beyond our abilities to get there. The people are
powerful, and in comparison to them we're grasshoppers (Numbers 13:31). We say
this not in the affectionate way the blind Shaolin master addressed David Carradine in
Kung Fu. We mean that these folks are big and they'll stomp us. To paraphrase the
King Fu instructor: We are not ready, Grasshopper. Okay, we've got an attitude
problem and the next chapter deals with addressing it, mainly by condemning the
generation that displays this attitude to perish in the wilderness.

Then we come to this morsel about bread:

When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the 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.
Numbers 15:18-21

Food and land are tied together in the Torah. The challah, the loaf set aside as a gift,
is incumbent upon us only in the land of Israel. The mitzvah we still perform by
removing a measure of dough before baking is a rabbinic decree meant to insure that
this commandment is not forgotten outside of post-Temple Israel.

It was only in the Middle Ages that challah became the term used for the special
Shabbat bread. According to food writer Claudia Roden, this designation first
appeared in South Germany. In our parasha, challah refers to a loaf. This is in
contrast to other meal offerings that are in wafer form, such as the one found in
Leviticus 2:4 that was cited above.

So far, challah is an offering made to God: the first yield of your baking, you shall set
aside a loaf as a gift (Numbers 15:20). The term used for setting aside in the parasha
is tarimu terumah. As Jacob Milgrom explains, this expression means that an item is
transferred to the deity but unlike other offerings, the exchange is not "before" God,
rather it is directly "to" God. (The Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary:
Numbers, 15:19 p. 122) The verb tarimu means "you shall raise." This challah, this
gift to God, is no mere exchange, it is an elevation. A humble piece of dough is much
more than it appears. It is our connection to the Divine.

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There is an underlying reciprocity in the act of taking challah. God sustained us with
manna in the wilderness; when we enter the land we, in turn,give a portion of our
bread to God. The connection between challah and manna is found on our Shabbat
table every week. Two challot represent the double portion of manna that fell prior to
Shabbat. There are those who extend the symbolism by pointing out that the cutting
board represents the ground on which the manna fell and the challah cover
represents the protective coat of dew over the manna.

The rabbinic imagination found profound inspiration in the act of taking challah.
Genesis Rabbah, citing Numbers 15:20, claims that God too removed challah. When
did God do this? When humanity was created. The human being is the challah of the

Rabbi Yossi ben Ketsarta said: Like a woman who mixes her dough with water and
separates challah from the very centre, so too a flow would well up from the ground
and water the whole surface of the earth (Genesis 2:6) followed by the Lord God
formed man from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7)
Genesis Rabbah 14:1

The midrashic reading of Genesis is that just as dough is formed from grains of the
earth mixed with water, God formed humanity from a combination of earth and water,
not merely from the dust of the ground. Humanity is more than the Pillsbury
doughboy; it is challah, physically separated from the rest of creation, the most
important part of creation.

The psalmist reminds us that we are little less than divine (Psalm 8:6); our lesson
here is that we are more than mundane. Not just earth, not just water – it is the
combination of the two that makes something so basic and so unique. In kneading
dough we are reminded of our position, elevated to be God's challah.

Now this begins to make sense when we read the beginning of the parasha. We are
not grasshoppers, we are the dough that rises and is separated for a Divine purpose.
Since entering the land, we are reminded of this every time we bake bread; in other
words on a daily basis.

In extending the mitzvah outside the land of Israel, the sages consciously or not
provided a lesson in perception that goes far beyond the obvious lesson of self-
esteem. We know that mitzvot turn mundane actions into holy acts, but we are not
always aware of their transformative power. Remember the bread that "helps build
strong bodies twelve ways?" Challah applies this to the soul. In the words of
Abraham Joshua Heschel: "To perform deeds of holiness is to absorb the holiness of
deeds. " A tasty morsel to chew on this Shabbat.

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Shabbat shalom,

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