I used to have this recurring nightmare. It would happen like this: suddenly in the middle of my sleep, I would awake, as if struck by a bolt of lightning. It hit me and sent me into a panic. I was drenched in cold sweat, and I had to see if it was too late.
I fumbled for my glasses to search for the alarm clock. It glared 3:30 AM.
It was too late!
I had missed it and there was nothing I could do.
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If these fearful thoughts caught me before midnight or maybe even 1 AM, I could reach for the phone, make a call and usually still be OK. But sometimes I made the call too late, the orders had been processed, the trucks were being loaded, and there was nothing that could be done. I would have to fend for myself.
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What were these strange nightmares about?
Well, 20 years ago, I ran a small kosher deli while I was in college. It had 20 part-time employees and would gross over 100,000 dollars a year. Restarting a defunct deli my freshman year, I ran this business, paying for some of my school and eating my way through college. If you visit Columbia today, it is still there.
But it was not all potato knishes, Gulden’s mustard and Dr. Brown’s cream soda. It was hard work managing a staff, administering the business, being efficient, advertising and ordering the food.
Over time, I had most of the ordering down to a science: there were weekly meat, knish, salad and veggie orders and monthly drink and paper goods orders. All of that was fairly easy to manage unless I got into a busy spell like around mid-terms or when I had a bunch of papers due at the same time.
But there was one order that had to be completed each day, or really each night. The bread order. I had to call the Fink Baking Corporation by 11 PM the night before any day we wanted fresh bread delivered to have it waiting in our bread box outside our door the next morning.
This was complicated and tricky. I had to see how much bread was left over from the previous day; often, a whole loaf of rye would last another day, as would sealed hot dog and hamburger buns – the wheat bread or open bread, maybe not. Then I had to make a guesstimate as to the next day’s sales. Factoring in the weather, the class schedule, the day of the week and what was going on in the campus, I would scratch out my guesses on a piece of paper, call the number and give the order.
Since this was before cell phones, I had to be near a phone. If I forgot to order and went out for the evening, I had to have quarters, find a pay phone and call it in. It was easy to forget. Sometimes I would get back to my dorm room around midnight and get the order in just under the wire. Sometimes it was too late. That meant I would have to go out in the morning before classes tofind and buy kosher pareve bread from local stores, paying more and spending valuable time I did not have.
Hence the recurring nightmare.
It’s funny; even after I graduated, passed the deli on to someone else, and was living in Israel, I would wake up, struck with the fear I did not order the bread.
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Now, you might be wondering why I am sharing this little entrepreneurial saga this morning and what Torah it could possibly contain, so let me share the connections.
My deli was a place for eating meat, and this is the parashah where meat is added to the acceptable list of foods that humans can eat. There is a subtle shift between what takes place in Parashat Bereisheet, last week’s opening of the Torah, and this week’s reading. Last week, we learned of the creation of the world. On the sixth day of creation, God creates human beings, presenting them with some basic instructions.
“Vayomer Elohim, ‘Hinei natati lakhem kol eisev zorei’ah zera’ asher al-pnei khol ha-aretz….’ God said, ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.’” (Genesis 1:29-30)
It seems that human beings were originally supposed to be vegetarians according to the Torah. Perhaps even animals were supposed to be limited to green plants in their diets, though this seems difficult to imagine. To be fair, the Torah does contain information which pushes in the opposite direction; for example, when God seems to like Abel’s meat offering more than Cain’s veggie one. Nonetheless, the overall thrust of the beginning of the Torah is vegetarianism.
But all that changes this week. After the flood, God blesses Noah and his sons and then states, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.” (Genesis 9:3-4)
In our Etz Hayim Humash, Rabbi Kushner explains this: “Originally, God expected people to be vegetarians and not kill living creatures for their food. But this ideal became corrupted into the notion that there are no qualitative differences between humans and animals, leading some people to the conclusion that they could behave like animals. God then compromised the vegetarian ideal, permitting the eating of meat, but strenuously forbidding the shedding of human blood, as a way of emphasizing the distinction between humans and animals.”
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But the third and most important connection between my deli experience and this parashah is how they have an impact beyond the Jewish community. While my deli provided a vital service to Jewish students who kept kosher so they could grab a kosher lunch on their way to class, it also helped other Jewish students who did not keep kosher but enjoyed our food.
It also made an impact on the wider campus community. I cannot tell you how many conversations I would get into with non-Jewish students who were curious about the deli and keeping kosher. They would ask why couldn’t they get cheese on their Reuben corned beef sandwiches? Why don’t we mix meat and milk? Why do we keep kosher? What values are embedded in kashrut?
It was through these conversations that many non-Jews come to appreciate our tradition’s perspectives on eating and food.
Similarly, Parashat Noah comes to teach universal lessons, lessons that go beyond the scope of the Jewish people. We might have thought after last week’s reading with its ideas about creation and the nature of human beings that we would move directly to the story of the Jewish people’s encounter with God: the story of Abraham. But the Torah does not do that; it makes a most critical stop – Noah is the bridge portion between God and creation on the one side and our people’s experiences on the other. Noah is the universal story – while Noah walks with God, he is not considered to be our earliest spiritual ancestor; that’s Avraham. Noah is considered the second father of all humanity – after Adam.
And unlike Adam, he follows God’s commands and is given a covenant – a sacred promise. God promises never to destroy the world again, and Noah is given some basic moral obligations to live up to. Building on the Torah text, our rabbis consider these to be the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, and eating a limb from a living animal, as well as the injunction to establish a legal system – courts that will enforce the laws, creating a moral and just society.
These are the core commandments of the Torah – while Jews are given another 606 laws, these seven are available to all. Maimonides writes that any non-Jew who observes these Noahide Commandments, as they are called, will receive a share in the world-to-come. Thus, one does not need to be Jewish to be given the reward of the righteous. This contrasts with some Christian beliefs that claim that if one does not believe in Jesus, one cannot be saved. Judaism believes that we can all live a moral life – all humanity is part of God’s covenant with Noah and we are all given the sign of the rainbow as a reminder of the universal covenant with God.
These seven laws delineate the distinction between human and animal behaviors. Humans should elevate their eating and living to a higher moral plane.
The Torah thus is not just a Jewish document, but it has a message that is meant for all humanity. In this sense, it has been remarkably successful; in fact, the most influential text of all time. The Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, has billions of followers. 4.5 billion people follow it as part of their religion. While there are only 13 million Jews, if we include Christians and Muslims, there are 4.5 billion people who look to the Tanakh as a core text of their spiritual tradition.
And if we add the Western legal and democratic tradition, which is born out of the Tanakh, that number only grows. This covenant has been successful, embraced by most of humanity, as the Torah said.
Thus, this parashah is a reminder that while, as Jews, we have been given the gift of the Torah and the mitzvot as a particular guide to how to live a moral, ethical, spiritual and meaningful life, we do not take this for ourselves as the only path. The Torah and our tradition build in an understanding that all humanity is part of God’s world and God’s covenant.
May we all recognize that our special covenant, as Jews descended from Abraham, was preceded by God’s first fundamental covenant with Noah, thus remembering that all humanity has a special place in God’s universe.