Bread and Hope

It just might be that the smell of baking bread is one of the most exquisitely wonderful aromas we experience in life. On Friday afternoons, our house is a scene of countertops dusted with flour, bowls with dough remnants, a full oven, and pervading it all is that one of kind scent of fresh baked bread. No matter what is going on in the world, it is enough to give anyone a moment’s sense of tranquility and gratitude.

Jewish tradition adds a unique dimension to the bread baking process, the taking of hala. In essence, any time a Jewish person bakes a sizeable quantity of bread (any that is made by about 9 cups or more of flour), a very small portion is to be taken from the dough. In ancient times, this small portion was given to the Kohanim, the priests, as a gift. Today, the small portion is burned. The source of this commandment is found in this week’s parasha. By looking at how it came about, we come to realize how the already delightful experience of baking bread, also becomes a meditation on and strengthening of hope.

The commandment to take hala is given just after one of the most tragic episodes in the Torah. After Moses sends twelve scouts to observe and report back about the land of Israel that they are about to enter, ten declare that it will be impossible for the Israelites to enter their destination. They argue that the land, while good, swallows up its inhabitants and is filled with giants who cannot be defeated. Two scouts try in vain to encourage the Israelites that they can in fact succeed. They declare that with God’s help, they will be able to make it to their destination, the land of their ancestors. The voices of these two scouts are drowned out and the Israelites descend into a hysteria of hopelessness. It is at this moment that God pronounces that the Israelites must wander in the desert for forty years. All those above the age of twenty will live the rest of their lives and die in the wilderness. The younger generation, who are not held responsible for their descent into despair, will grow older and after the forty years, be able to enter the promised land.

The great medieval Spanish commentator, ibn Ezra, explains that this younger generation was deeply fearful after this event. They saw how their elders failed and though as the younger generation they had not been held accountable, they still wondered whether they had truly been forgiven and would succeed in settling in the land after the forty years of wandering. It is for this reason, ibn Ezra continues, that the commandment of taking hala is given here. The taking of hala was a commandment for all time but that would only go into effect after the people settled in the land. Thus, by giving this commandment God was telling the younger generation, “I know you’ll get there. I am so sure that I am giving you this commandment that applies only once you have arrived and forever thereafter, right now.”

This method of giving hope has actually been well documented by Positive Psychology. It centers on what is called “explanatory style”. In essence, optimism and hope are cultivated when a person explains negative events as temporary and narrowly focused, while understanding positive events as enduring and pervasive (for more on “explanatory style” see this article by Douglas B. Turner, MAPP). By giving a commandment to be practiced upon arriving in the land, a commandment that would be in effect forever thereafter, God was guiding the Israelites to think of the tragedy that had just occurred as temporary and narrowly applied, while the positive reality of the commandment as enduring and relevant for all generations thereafter. Through giving this commandment, God provided for the generation who would ultimately settle in the promised land, an exercise in strengthening their hope muscle.

Healthy optimism and hope are essential to living a meaningful life. What the commandment of taking hala, as well as current psychological research teach us is that these are traits we can cultivate. What is our “explanatory style” when we encounter the inevitable obstacles and negative events in our lives? What is it when we encounter the continually occurring positive and uplifting ones? The more we can help ourselves understand the former as limited and passing, and the latter as reflective of something deeply good and enduring, the more we can move forward with a clear sense of purpose and hope; the more we can radiate that perspective out for the support and benefit of others.

The next time we bake a big batch of bread, let us take a portion of hala, feel the warmth and breathe in the scent of the freshly baked loaves. Let us recall our ancestors who faced great challenges and who were given this commandment to help them learn to see past those challenges, overcome them, and march forward toward their destination, fueled by thoughts of bread and hope.

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