Some themes get exhausted quickly. The Kardashians, vampires that sparkle, mocking-anythings. Other themes persists for ages. Beliefs in God–or gods–light versus darkness, Tolkien and Harry Potter. Other themes are fresh at first but as time goes on, we tire of them. We want something new. Something novel. Something we haven’t seen or read a dozen times before.
This week’s teaching is one of those themes.
3.4 Rabbi Shimon taught:
Three who dine at a table and do not exchange words of Torah are considered as having eaten of idolatrous sacrifices, as it is written, “For all the tables are filled with vomit and filth, when God is absent” (Isaiah 28:8).
However, three who dine at a table and exchange words of Torah are considered as having eaten at God’s table, as it is written, “And He spoke to me, ‘This is the table before the Lord'” (Ezekiel 41:22).
I can’t say I have anything new to add. Anything novel to bring to this discussion. It seems the same lesson as before, but now with tables instead of chairs. It is curious, however, why the number three is important. Would the same stand for groups of eight or ten, groups of two or four, groups of one? Do these words of Torah refer to idle chitchat–“Did you hear the rabbi’s sermon this morning?”–or to blessings, prayers, and actual passages of text?
These questions are not ones I’m qualified to answer. I can assume it applies to all numbers of people eating, but past that I cannot pass any judgments. I can also assume, from previous discussions concerning Jewish law that I’ve had with others, that this only applies to Jews, which in another way perhaps makes it more curious. What happens in mixed company? If two Jews speak words of Torah but the gentile does not, is it still a zombie sacrifice?
Again, these are questions I am not qualified to answer.
So what can I say–if all these questions are beyond me, what is there left to discover, to learn and discern? I can’t be certain, but one thing I can be certain about is hunger.
I like to think I have never truly been hungry in all my life. I’ve had cravings that have gone unmet, I’ve had hunger pains between classes when I’ve wished I’ve had a snack, and I’ve had fast days that have shown me I can survive without food and stay sane without eating. But I have never truly been hungry. There has always been food for me to chew on.
This is not true for everyone. Around the world and even in our own communities, there are those that go hungry. There are kids in school who only get meals in the cafeteria because there is no food at home. There are the homeless begging for dollars who may not eat for days at a time. There are the elderly who are unable to provide for themselves and lack another’s support to help them through their final days. There are children in Africa that you see on TV. There are so many millions more that you will never see on TV who are starving as we speak.
I like to think that words and actions are not as exclusive as we’d like to believe. There’s that uncredited quote I shared some time ago that says thoughts become words and words become actions–that one leads to other, and then, what then is their difference?
Words of Torah are not easy to speak. Except for a few phrases and a few short prayers, I don’t know many of them. I’m not the only one like this; there are many others for whom the Torah is too much to know entirely. But I believe the Torah is as much a living document as an artifact of ancient Jewish life. It speaks to us in the words we know we can hear; it informs us and guides our actions, not merely our thoughts and prayers and blessings.
I like to think we can all eat at the table of God, but not by “speaking” words or only feasting in groups of three. I think we can all eat at the table of God by acting godly while we eat. We can say our prayers and blessings of thanksgiving, no matter to whom these words are offered. We can welcome strangers and guests to our tables. We can let all who are hungry eat. We can keep kosher if that’s our prerogative, or halal or anything else. We can use manners and be courteous and polite. We can make every meal holy simply by investing ourselves in something more than rote habit.
But it doesn’t have to end there. We can donate to food pantries and volunteer at food banks. When I was in Israel, we spent a day in Jerusalem volunteering at one such place; my group was in a warehouse across the street, sorting food donations that would be sent home with people to keep them fed when they weren’t being served there. Every Yom Kippur, our biggest day of fasting, my synagogue compels us to donate what we would have spent on feeding ourselves to feed others. At school, I helped people to our food pantry and it was the most humbling thing I’ve ever done–to stand idly watching as people, unable to feed themselves, came to our pantry and asked for help.
If money is not our forte, and for many it isn’t, that’s no excuse to not help the hungry. When something goes on sale, “buy one, get one,” instead of keeping them both for yourself, donate the one you get for free. Encourage others to donate and let them know how easy it can be. Skip eating out once a week so you can spare some change for someone who needs it. Go to The Hunger Site each day and click the button to raise money to feed the hungry–all for free, all because other people who have money sponsor ads on the site that, by clicking just once a day, generate food for others.
Words need not always be spoken aloud to make a difference, and words of Torah can uplift all things if only we live by the righteousness and selflessness they teach. For as he said to me, this is the table that stands before the Lord.