By Joel Elkins, October 23, 2021
The Lord appeared to Avraham at Alonei Mamre as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the mid-day heat.
He looked up and here were three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and bowed to the ground, saying, “Sirs, please do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and rest yourselves under the tree And seeing as you have already come this far, let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; and then you can go on.”
“Very well,” they replied, “do as you have said.”
Avraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three measures of choice flour! Knead it and make cakes!”
Then Avraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it.
He took curds and whey and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.
Thus begins Vayera, the parsha which famously ends with the akeida, the binding of Isaac. What, if anything, is the connection between these two bookend scenes? True, it begins with the announcement of Yitzchak’s birth and ends with his near-death at the hands of the one to whom it was announced and at the bidding of the one who did the announcing.
But if that is all there is to it, why the Julia Child detail? Why do we need to know the complete menu and the preparation that went into making it? Why the cakes from choice flour and the calf and the curds and whey?
A number of possible explanations spring to mind:
- The prevailing view is that it is a lesson in hachnasat orchim, that one should not only invite in guests but go all out in attending to their needs and making them feel comfortable.
- Or, as Rabbi Kligfeld explained at the tribute to Michael Berlin last shabbat, it demonstrates the virtue of being modest in one’s promises and abundant in one’s delivery. Avraham promises a modest piece of bread and delivers a feast.
- It could be to draw a comparison between Avraham’s morals and actions with those exhibited by Lot, and to contrast that with the prevailing habits of the Sodomites and Amorites in the following scene.
- Perhaps it is an example of why Avraham was worthy of having a child and being the father of a great nation.
- Or perhaps it’s something else.
Many people have commented on the fact that Avraham is serving meat and milk together in the same meal. True, but let’s concentrate on the meat he serves. “Ben bakar rach va-tov” (a young calf, tender and choice) sounds like a perfect description of veal.
On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Kligfeld gave a sermon about the benefits of vegetarianism and his journey to a plant-based diet. In that sermon, he discussed how he considered Jewish dietary laws to be a compromise between all-out barbarity, like they practiced in Sodom and Gemorah, and vegetarianism, which was the ideal. He discussed the notion that perhaps God had reluctantly given mankind animals to eat in order to satisfy their blood lust, but that this was far from God’s preferred relationship between man and animal.
During a sukkah meal the following week, Zwi Reznik, himself a vegetarian, told me that, when he had expressed to Rabbi Kligfeld how much he appreciated the sermon, and had recounted to him his own first step towards vegetarianism – swearing off veal – our mara de’atra’s response was immediate and succinct: “Veal is tref.”
Perhaps a bit of hyperbole or aspirational thinking, but there is certainly truth there. There is more scriptural evidence supporting the notion that veal should be tref, than a cheeseburger. After all, the law prohibiting eating meat and milk together comes from a very broad interpretation of the commandment “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
But such an interpretation is not in line with the spirit of the verse. There are those who say the prohibition derives from the fact that such a practice was part of an ancient pagan practice. But there is no support for that either in the Torah.
However, there is support for the idea that animals deserve to be protected. The Torah’s prohibition against tearing a limb off of a live animal and the mandate to give your animals the shabbat off clearly shows concern for the ethical treatment of animals physically. And the three repetitions of the verse not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk, along with the mitzvah of shiluach haken (chasing the mother bird away before taking her eggs) demonstrates a concern for the animal’s emotional wellbeing as well. If you absolutely have to eat animals, do it mercifully and don’t add insult to injury by boiling it in its mother’s milk. If you absolutely have to eat eggs, spare the feelings of the mother bird.
So where does this leave the eating of veal?
Recently a midrash on this story was discovered by the great Torah scholar Carl Dodi. Translated from the ancient Assyrian, it goes something like this:
The three men partook of the meal which Avraham had laid before them.
“This is indeed choice flour baked scrumptiously into cakes,” said one.
“And these curds and whey could make a spider chase away a young child,” said the second.
“But what is this flesh?” asked the third.
“That is beef from my youngest and tenderest calfling,” replied Avraham. “Freshly slaughtered and cooked to perfection.”
At this, Hashem took great offense. “What did the mother cow say when you asked to take her calf?”
“I did not ask,” replied Avraham.
Hashem turned to his fellow travelers. “I begrudgingly gave mankind animals to eat so they would not kill each other. I had no idea they would turn it into a basic food group. And a baby calfling nonetheless.” At that moment Hashem had an idea. Hashem would give Avraham a son, a single, dear, kind, thoughtful, precious child, whom Avraham and Sarah could love, raise and dote upon. A son upon whom they could invest their greatest hopes and dreams. And then, a few years later, before that son had even reached full maturity, Hashem would then instruct Avraham to slaughter that child, without explanation and without asking permission or input from Avraham.
And so God put this plan into motion right then and there, announcing to Avraham that his wife, Sarah, well past what was considered her fertile years, would bear a child within the year.
The Torah says the akeida at the conclusion of the parsha is God’s test of Avraham, a test which some people say he failed. That rather than act with blind faith, God was hoping Avraham would push back against the decree, as he had pushed back against the decree of Sodom and Gemora.
But perhaps the scene at the beginning of the parsha was the real test that Avraham failed. Perhaps killing and serving a young calf is not the best way to honor one’s guests. The akeida may have been God’s way of driving that point home.