As we move into this Shabbat perhaps still digesting our Thanksgiving meal, our thoughts once again turn to food as we look at this week’s Torah portion, Toldot.
Jacob and Esau are the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, and their relationship is marked by rivalry. Esau is the hunter and his father’s favorite (and the first born), and Jacob is the homebody and his mother’s favorite. Isaac in his advancing years has lost his eyesight, and he asks Esau to hunt some venison, his favorite food, and then Isaac will give him his blessing.
Rebekah overhears this request, and when Esau goes out to the hunt, Rebekah tells Jacob to fetch two goats from the flock that she will prepare and Jacob will bring to Isaac so that he can get the blessing rather than his brother. When he objects, claiming that Isaac will know its not Esau, she tells him to get Esau’s clothes from the closet, and dresses him in the clothes and the goat skins, to make it seem he is hairy like his brother.
When Jacob brings the food Isaac is startled, surprised at the quickness of the errand. Jacob claims to be Esau, and Isaac asks him to come close. While Jacob doesn’t sound like Esau, he feels like Esau, and so Isaac eats the food. He then invites “Esau” to come close, and when he smells Esau’s scent he is satisfied, and offers the blessing.
The senses play an important part in this story of deception, blessing, and family dynamics. It is put into motion because we can not rely on sight. Hearing is hard to disguise, but touch proves pivotal. And the sense that seals the deal is smell.
This is understandable, as the power of scent is tremendous. Smells can provide warning, they can provoke memories, they can attract and repel. We remember the smells of our childhoods, our favorite foods, our loved ones. And sensitivity to scent is also an accessibility issue. The sense of smell is important and potent.
What missing from this story, interesting, is any focus on the sense of taste. And what makes that absence so noticeable is the fact that the story hinges on food. Isaac wants venison as a precursor to offering the blessing, Rebekah prepares goat as a substitute. And while the text talks about Isaac eating the food, there is no comment as to what his reaction is when he eats it.
Taste too is a powerful sense. Coming off of Thanksgiving, a holiday that has food at the center, we are reminded of this. Each year around this table—and others, as other holidays have their signature foods as well—we connect with each other and the past through food. Certain dishes become tradition, not only categories of food but particular recipes. New preparations and experiments are approached with caution. Substitution of favorites is taken with risk. As we draw closer to Hanukkah, we know that even a simple food like a latke can be prepared in a myriad of ways, and we all have our preferences as to which is the “right” way.
So the absence of any reference to what happened when Isaac ate goat instead of venison is striking. I don’t recall ever eating goat, but I have had venison. And I know that venison tastes different than beef, or chicken, or fish, or tofu. And the text points out that venison is Isaac’s favorite food, one would think he was able to tell the difference.
And perhaps he did. In reading the story, it is sometimes hard to believe that Isaac, even with his diminished capacity, didn’t know what was really going on. The text even hints at his doubt, and that he suspects it is Jacob in front of him rather than Isaac. And maybe he played along with the deception, knowing that it was Jacob—based on character, or divine decree—who deserved the blessing after all. Maybe in tasting the food, in tasting goat and not venison, he realized what was at hand, and the silence of the text demonstrates his agreement to play along.
Was Isaac as complicit in tricking Esau as much as Rebekah and Jacob? Perhaps. And it is a lesson to us as well to know when to raise an issue, or accept the reality as presented. Whenever we come to holiday times we are presented with numerous reflections on how to talk about difficult subjects around the dinner table with family and friends we don’t usually see. Weighing what to talk about and how is important to both preserve one’s own well-being and maintain relationships, as well as to be true to oneself and advance an argument. We may be able to avoid some topics, but we may not want to. And on the other hand, sometimes not talking about something is what is best. A good guest, for example, will be judicious on commenting about a host’s food preparation.
In these times, there is much to speak out against. And sometimes, as Isaac demonstrates, we move things forward by not speaking.