Fittingly, with Thanksgiving just a few days away, food plays a prominent role in this week’s Torah reading. The portion, Toldot (“Generations”), begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau, and details the boys’ fraught relationship as they grow up. Most of the drama between them happens around mealtimes. Jacob convinces Esau to surrender his birthright in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup, then employs a dish of roasted goat to trick his father into giving him the blessing of the first born.
The preeminence of food in this sibling drama is not surprising, given how central it has been in Jewish culture for well over two thousand years. But what really constitutes Jewish food? In his book Rhapsody in Schmaltz, Michael Wex notes that the only uniquely Jewish food is matzah; everything else is, essentially, the standard local cuisine, adapted to fit within the laws of kashrut. It is no accident that the foods featured in Toldot—lentils and goat meat—are universal Middle Eastern staples. Sephardic Jewish cooking features the multitude of spices and flavors readily available in North Africa. Ashkenazi food, by contrast, relies heavily upon the relatively few ingredients resilient enough to survive a short growing season followed by long, bitter winters: dairy products, hardy grains and root vegetables. As the lyrics of a classic Yiddish song teach: “Monday: potatoes. Tuesday: potatoes. Wednesday and Thursday: potatoes. Friday: potatoes. On Shabbos: potato kugel.” Where most American Jews now place parsley on our seder plates, our Ashkenazi ancestors used a potato—because it was the only “vegetable” available in March in the Russian Pale of Settlement.
What our ancestors did not know—but we do—is that this Jewish approach to eating has significant impact on our environment, especially around the issue of catastrophic climate change. They were eating locally and seasonally long before “farm-to-table” became trendy. We can lower our carbon footprints by emulating them.
Our ancestors also practiced the mitzvah of bal tashchit—or “do not waste.” They lived frugally, because they had little choice. They were, mostly, impoverished, and food was scarce. Our challenge is to avoid waste even when we are living in prosperity. We have a lot to do here. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 30 percent of food is wasted globally across the supply chain, contributing 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would come in third after the United States and China in terms of impact on global warming. As Paul Hawken notes in his book Drawdown, cutting food waste is one of the most important things we can do to combat climate change, with the same impact as reducing emissions through alternative energy sources.
Finally, we can emulate our ancestors by eating less meat. As the old joke goes, “When a Jew eats a chicken, one of them is sick.” Reducing the meat in our diet is another of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases.
The Jewish people have a long history of conscious and conscientious eating. In our portion, food is a source of conflict, but if we eat morally, it can be a path of healing, for us and, fittingly this week, for the toldot—the future generations—who will inherit the earth we choose to bequeath to them.