Comfort Food

Pinehas By :  Abigail Treu Posted On Jun 25, 2013 / 5773 | Main Commentary

When my friend Eleanor’s mother passed away several years ago, the email from her husband providing the shiv’ah details included the following request:

There is no need to bring anything, just you. Eleanor has been with her family for the past few weeks, and has been surrounded by fatty quiches, sugary deserts, and an abundance of ham—none of which she eats. So, if you are constitutionally incapable of coming without bringing something, she’d prefer fruits, vegetables, breads, and soups, but absolutely no need to bring anything. Really. You will be the perfect comfort.

Comfort food. Whether it’s chicken soup or chocolate chip cookies, the concept is basic: certain foods provide us with emotional gratification. Beyond that, though, this message raises some essential questions—questions about offerings. When we go to help someone—in times of mourning, illness, or just a basic potluck pitch-in—do we give them what we need to give, or what they need of us? How are we to know, if we are not explicitly told, what will please, comfort, or help someone else the most? And the religious corollary to this line of thinking: do our answers change when it comes to bringing an offering to please or comfort not our friends, but God?

I remembered that email from Eleanor’s husband as I reencountered Parashat Pinehas this week. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Israelite people and say to them: Be punctilious in presenting to Me at stated times the offerings of food due Me, as gifts of pleasing odor to Me” (Num. 28:1–2). What God commands of us—in varying iterations for the daily offering, Shabbat, new months, and festivals—is a well-balanced meal. Some protein (the burnt offering, be it lamb, bull, or some combination thereof); a carbohydrate (the grain offering, prepared with a little olive oil); and a beverage (the libation offering). Abravanel notes that the tamid, the daily offering, consists of the most basic staples of the Israelite diet. This basic meal, offered twice a day, includes “gifts of pleasing odor (re’ach nichochi) to Me.”

Bible scholars consider this a “linguistic fossil,” a throwback to an ancient Near Eastern theology that held that gods needed food and created humans to attend to their domestic needs. We do not read the verse so literally; we understand that the sacrificial cult outlined in Numbers 28 and 29 (and Leviticus and elsewhere) is about worshipping God, not literally feeding God. Nonetheless, we see in even symbolic terms that God requires a very specific menu of comfort food.

In a world without a Temple, what might we offer God that brings the pleasing odor, the re’ach nichoach? The midrash plays with the phrase, turning re’ach nichoach into nachat ru’ach, or what in Yiddish would be referred to as shepping nachas (deriving great pleasure).

There is a pleasurable disposition (nachat ru’ach) before God because God has given a command and God’s will has been done. So the expression is used when an (expensive) bull is offered, and also when a head of small cattle or bird is offered, in order to teach the lesson that he who offers much and he who offers little is alike before God, for God neither eats nor drinks (i.e., is not placated by receiving more rather than less) . . . The Holy One, blessed be He, said: “My children! It is not because I eat or drink that I told you to offer sacrifices, but on account of the aroma which should remind you that you must be sweet and pleasing (nochim) to Me like a pleasing aroma (nichoach).” (Sifre Numbers 143 and Numbers Rabbah 21:19, as cited in The JPS Commentary to Numbers by Jacob Milgrom)

Over time, the four cubits of halakhah replaced the sacrifices, a connection we feel explicitly as we read these chapters. It is after all the minhah (grain offering) that becomes in the mishnah (Berakhot 4:1) the afternoon prayer of the same name. What might we offer that would be sweet and pleasing to our Lord? Halakhah guides us, but raises more questions than it answers as we navigate our relationship to that rabbinic inheritance as individuals and as a community. Is tzedakah given to Jewish causes or worldly ones? How do we create a Jewish family that honors its members of other faiths? Does God prefer white lies or brutal honesty? Prayer three times every day or only when we are so moved?

The penultimate sentence of the parashah, which concludes the instructions for the offerings according to the calendar, is wonderfully prescient and may be the key to unraveling these questions as we read this week. “All these you shall offer to the Lord at the stated times, in addition to your votive and freewill offerings, be they burnt offerings, grain offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being” (Num. 29:39). What a surprise! All of those other offerings—the two chapters’ worth that God wants—are in addition (l’vad) to the ones we want and are moved to offer.

Wouldn’t we expect the reverse? That first we do what we have to do, and then what we want? Eat your vegetables first, and then dessert? Do your homework first, and then go play? In reality, we humans tend to consider what we want and need first. Only with great will, discipline, and a sense of self-sacrifice do we place the needs of others, and God, before our own. When we do it, we derive our own nachat ru’ach (satisfaction of spirit). Sometimes, anyway. From the tension between these two bookend verses—the opening wherein God states God’s needs, and the closing where our own religious needs, which might be quite different—the spiritual mystery lies.

Like us, God finds comfort in certain offerings more than others. Nachat ru’ach is not easy to conjure in another being, be it divine or human. Professor and former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch wrote on this very parashah,

We do not perform God’s will to please God. The religious life is its own reward. We pray daily not because we are commanded, but because of the inner contentment that it brings. What was once external and imposed has at last been internalized by us into a source of self-fulfillment . . . Worship effects no change in God, but it can surely transform our lives by exposing us to God’s presence. (cited in Canon Without Closure, 565)

If we are successful in living a religious life that becomes its own reward, then the email from Eleanor’s husband comes to feel just right: bringing just ourselves will be the perfect comfort for God and for one another.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.