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The table is the heart

28/04/17 15:10:14


Sitting around the seder table at Pesach time got me thinking about just how many important events and conversations take place around the table. There are boardroom tables and cabinet tables, card tables and royal tables, but the most significant are surely the family dining room tables or the simple kitchen tables. It is here in the family home around these humble tables that some of the most significant and meaningful interactions happen. It’s around the Shabbat or festive table we talk across the generations, spar with our siblings, look into the eyes of our grandparents. It’s here we discover our capacity for communication, our ability to share emotions. We are brought together by our common need to break bread and in the process we may discover an uncommon talent for repartee or bringing comfort to a hurting heart.

Shauna Niequist, author of a book entitled “Bread and wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes”, writes: “We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is a great equalizer”. The table isn’t necessarily the equalizer and certainly in days past (and still in many cultures and some families) there was a strict stratification.  There was father’s seat and mother’s seat. This is evident in Halacha itself which stresses that a child should not sit in a parents seat without permission. Today in Western culture we sit more around our screens than our tables, but fortunately the Shabbat table still retains its hold on the Jewish family. It’s in many ways the fulcrum of the Jewish family and Friday night appears to still define the Jewish experience and identity across our community.

Niequist puts it “If the home is a body, the table is the heart, the beating centre, the sustainer of life and health”. This is superbly consistent with the idea in Jewish thought that the family table is representative of the מזבח or altar which had central place in the Temple. Our table thus becomes a way of serving God. Incidentally this is the reason we salt our bread as it reminds us that the sacrifices were accompanied by salt. A table is potentially not just a place to satisfy our hunger, its also a launching pad to the Divine. It’s where the physical and spiritual meet and that’s why we’re encouraged to talk Torah at our meals. The opening prayer type invitation of the Hagadah הא לחמא expresses this idea beautifully: “Let all who are [physically] hungry come in and eat, all who are needy [emotionally, spiritually, socially] come in and join our celebration”.

At the table those who are hungry for love and companionship meet those who hunger for enlightenment and spirituality. Our family tables should also encourage conversations about those who are not sitting with us, the homeless and the destitute in Melbourne, the refugees across Australia who aren’t granted work visas; the families with single mums and those with disability. Our family tables should stimulate discussion about the enormous crisis of hunger in Africa what we can give and what our government should be contributing to this global disaster.

Jewish tradition refers to the ‘Royal Table’ of King Solomon, a table that defined fine cuisine, the kosher Michelin gold standard of dining. This is a different kind of table – exclusive, hierarchical. By contrast King David in the storied Psalm 23 refers to God “setting a table for me in full view of my enemies”, it’s a table where all who are connected to God have a sense of security and ease. Perhaps it’s this very table that disarms the enemy with its message of confidence and peacefulness. It suggests that the very best way to turn your enemy into your friend is to sit down at the table with them – talk and break bread, communicate and pierce barriers. A table is where we eat bread ( לחם ); it’s also a space for reaching out and dreaming ( חלום ). May our tables always be rich with the blessings of bread and dreams.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780