Posted on May 5, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
Our Torah portion for this week, Emor, contains the origin of challah, the beloved bread that is the foundational element of virtually every festive meal on Shabbat and holy days. Each Shabbat the Priests of ancient Israel were instructed to bake 12 loaves of bread made from exact measurements of fine flour. These challot were to be arranged in two rows on a pure table and placed in the inner chamber of the Tabernacle. There the loaves remained on display until the following Shabbat when they would be replaced by fresh ones and eaten by the priests.
This weekly offering known as the Showbread was rich in symbolism and meaning. The twelve challot of equal size and shape represented the unity and equality of the twelve tribes of Israel joining together in the service of God. And bread by its very nature reflects the partnership between God who brings forth grain and humanity whose efforts turn it into something of greater value.
To this day, bread has a special status among the various types of foods. It is called the staff of life, and we refer to sharing a meal as “breaking bread.” Our rabbis ordained that eating bread should be preceded by a special blessing because bread sustains the spirit as well as the body.
“Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
This blessing is one of the best-known Jewish prayers, yet most of us fail to notice that there is something strange about it. Does God bring forth bread from the earth? Do loaves of bread grow on trees or stalks? No, it requires both divine and human effort to make bread, and that is part of what makes it so precious. It is a symbol of our partnership with God in tikkun olam, building and repairing the world.
In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses shares his concern that success will lead the children of Israel to abandon their covenant with God and bring destruction upon themselves. He is worried that they will behold the fruits of their labors and say: “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” (Dt. 8:17)
What was true in ancient days is even more so in our day. Our physical and spiritual wellbeing are threatened by our failure to recognize our dependence upon the gifts of God, and our responsibility to shape them carefully and thoughtfully into things of even greater value. This is the meaning and purpose of our lives and the essence of our covenant with God. We take the raw materials of creation, employ the gifts of mind and heart that God gave us, and we become partners with God in perfecting the world.
May we recognize the good we have been given. May we discharge this debt of gratitude by acts of service to God and humanity. May we each contribute to the sacred tasks of tikkun olam. And may we make and break bread so that all God’s children may be sustained in body and soul.