BY Rabbi Shawn Zell
In a typical year, come Thanksgiving, a good many Americans would do to develop an appetite for leftovers. Just as Americans are fed reams of recipes of how to prepare turkey prior to proffering thanks, so too are Americans saturated with creative ideas of how to do justice to their November feast, once they have been satiated.
For Jews, leftovers should appeal to our tastes perhaps more than to any other group in this country. Aside from eating what was served on Shabbos on the following days of the week, Judaism is founded on the idea of leftovers. Word has it, that the Hebrew word Ivri used to refer to Abraham and every one of his descendants thereafter is rooted in the fact that Abraham came from “ayver ha.nahar” or over the (Euphrates) river. Permit me to suggest another interpretation. Abraham earned the distinction of being an Ivri, after he successfully survived Nimrod’s fire oven into which he was cast. As such, Abraham was the first, but far from the last of our people to defy the odds and remain alive in the face of ovens (and chimneys) designed to annihilate Jews. That is why, when meeting a fellow Jew at Shabbat services in Detroit, many years ago, I heard him accurately described himself as a “holoveshka” a Slavic word for “ember”. In all likelihood, he was quoting a term from the prophet Zechariah – a brand plucked from the fire. Leftovers are those who defy man’s inhumanity to man.
The apple does not fall from the tree. Granted, it might always be an apple. It may very well be a different species of fruit. If Abraham was a leftover, so too was Isaac, albeit in a totally different aspect. True, like his father, Isaac survived a near death experience. And yes, both the fiery oven and being bound on the altar with a blade about to descend on the neck were both tests, but there the similarity ends. The fiery furnace test centered around man’s faith in G-d; the binding of Isaac test centered around G-d’s faith in man. When all is said and done, Isaac merited being designated as a leftover, had nothing to do with thwarting death. It had to do with precious and priceless gifts come to those who are patient. In response to Abraham’s lament “My Master HaShem! What good are all your blessings? I have no offspring! Because You have given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth” (Genesis 15:2), G-d reassures the forefather of our people. “Eliezer will not be your heir; one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” HaShem is asking for patience. HaShem is holding back HaShem has someone in mind when the time is right. Stated differently, Isaac is a leftover. Isaac is an “otzar’ or treasure in the very best sense of the word.
“What’s the matter with kids these days”, dates much further back than any Broadway musical. Its origin even surpasses Socrates. In all probability, it was Jacob, our third patriarch, who was concerned with the next generation. And with good reason. His baker’s dozen was not exactly “naches producers”. And that is being kind. But Jacob knew his children. unlike many other parents, Jacob was not one to delude himself. So much so, that prior to departing this world, he summons his progeny to his bedside. “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days” (Genesis 91:1). In adjuring his children, the wise patriarch was in effect saying, “let’s talk leftovers”. Let me take stock of those whom I leave. What if anything, can you tell me about those who will remain after I am gone?” Jacob may not have realized it at the time, but he was introducing a concept that would live on until this very day. Jacob was introducing the concept of “Shearith Israel” or the remnant of Israel. And that too is a leftover.
No thesaurus will provide the following three synonyms for leftovers. Nevertheless, our patriarchs have done just that. Regarding Abraham, a leftover was a “holoveshka” or an ember. Regarding Isaac, a leftover was an “otzar” or precious gift, withheld for the proper time. Regarding Jacob, a leftover was “Shearith Yisroel” a (promising) remnant for the future. When it comes to leftovers, let us not only digest the leftovers of our patriarchs, but realize how very blessed we are as we savor the flavor.