Have you ever stopped to think about why you eat? This morning, when you sat down to eat your eggs with toast, or pancakes with maple syrup, was there anything meaningful or purposeful to the experience?

Is it even possible to make it that way? Outside of any spiritually or religiously mandated meal, can your eggs and toast be something sacred? Is it possible to experience a meaningful breakfast on a boring, average Monday?

Don’t Go to Egypt

Our parshah tells us that our forefather Isaac wasn’t allowed to leave the Land of Israel. In contrast to his father, Abraham, who journeyed to Egypt in times of famine, Isaac was warned that he should never leave the Holy Land:

[G‑d] said to him, “Do not go down to Egypt.” You are [as] a perfect burnt offering, and being outside the Holy Land is not fitting for you.1

The obvious question is, why would the fact that Isaac was like a burnt offering preclude him from going down to Egypt? Shouldn’t the opposite be true? After all, if anyone has the chance to go into a negative, unholy place and emerge unscathed, surely it would be the most holy person around. You wouldn’t want to risk sending anyone else!

Shammai and Hillel

To get to the bottom of the matter, let’s pivot and talk about two other great figures from our past, Shammai and Hillel. Known protagonists in the Talmud, these two eminent sages were towering scholars with significantly divergent viewpoints.

The Talmud2 tells us that Shammai would prepare for Shabbat every day of the week in the following manner: Each time a delicacy came his way, he would purchase it and set it aside for Shabbat. If he found something better over the course of the week, he would replace the original delicacy with the new-found one, and eat the first one. In that way, his meals – not only on Shabbat, but throughout the week – were eaten with Shabbat in mind.

By contrast, Hillel believed he would be furnished with a festive meal for Shabbat even if he didn’t set aside the best at the beginning of the week. So if he found something good to eat, he would eat it right away, trusting that G‑d would provide something for Shabbat in due time. Hillel cited the verse, “Blessed be G‑d, day by day…”3 to support his approach.

Shammai of Left, Hillel of Right

The Kabbalah explains the backstory to their behavior:

Shammai possessed a soul from the supernal world of gevurah—harsh discipline and discretion. Indeed, the Talmud is replete with stories of Shammai being exacting on others, as in the famous story of the convert who wished to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot.

In Shammai’s way of thinking, Shabbat is holy, the weekday is not. So, when Shammai saw a choice animal and wished to use it for G‑dly purposes, the only way to do so was to save it for Shabbat.

In other words, the weekday is not inherently holy, and G‑d is not directly found on Sunday. Rather, the pathway to G‑d on Sunday is inasmuch as it serves as preparation for Shabbat.

Hillel was the polar opposite. His soul stemmed from the supernal world of chessed—kindness and expansiveness. Referring back to the story of the convert who wished to learn the entire Torah on one foot, whereas Shammai forcefully chased him away, Hillel embraced him and famously responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow”—a prime example of how open and benevolent he was.

In line with his personality, Hillel’s view of G‑dliness and his relationship with the mundane is completely different from Shammai’s. For someone with such an expansive nature, there is no need to wait for Shabbat to serve G‑d. The animal he finds on Monday is perfectly suitable to be used in a G‑dly and Divine way on Monday, for G‑d is found on Monday just as much as He is found on Shabbat. Yes, it is a mitzvah to eat on Shabbat, so that makes for a more obvious form of G‑dlness and a more overt opportunity for Divine service, but it’s perfectly doable on Monday as well.

Isaac on the Left, Abraham on the Right

Going back to Isaac, his soul, too, explains the Kabbalah, stemmed from that same supernal world of gevurah, that place of discipline and discretion, much like Shammai. By contrast, Abraham possessed a soul of chessed, akin to Hillel.

For this reason, Abraham was able to go down to Egypt. Though it was a negative, unholy place, it posed no challenge to his overall mission in life. Would it be harder to serve G‑d there? Perhaps. But no matter where he was, Abraham was able to find a sacred and purposeful way to live his life. If Abraham had to eat, he could serve G‑d by eating breakfast whether it was Shabbat or Monday, Israel or Egypt.

Isaac, on the other hand, possessed a narrower, more focused world view. He was like a sacrifice to G‑d, enshrined in a holier way of thinking. If he had to serve G‑d by eating breakfast, it had to be a Shabbat morning breakfast. Otherwise, it was purely mundane. As such, going to the perverse and debased land of Egypt would be too tall a task for him. In such a depraved land, he would not be able to find G‑d.

Who Are You?

And so, the question I leave you with is, who are you (at least in this respect)?

Are you the Isaac/Shammai type, or Abraham/Hillel? When you sit down to eat breakfast on a Monday morning, do you find it to be something completely mundane, an act that exists entirely outside the world of your religious experience, or is it a purposeful, even holy experience?

Do you see your regular, everyday interactions as your own, unrelated to who you are as a spiritual person with a G‑dly mission to achieve? Or do you see a cohesive theme that threads all your activities together in a wholesome plan to make a difference on earth?

While it’s good to exercise caution and avoid thrusting yourself into situations that will test your convictions, there are times we can learn from the first Jew, Abraham, what it means to live as a Jew in this world. To realize that not only when we’re praying or lighting Shabbat candles, but even when we’re simply running down the block to grab a work lunch, there, too, G‑d can be found.

As you’re running to grab that sandwich, stop for just a brief moment and think: Why am I eating? I’m not just another animal looking to survive. I’m here for a reason. I’m grabbing this sandwich because I am special, I have a mission to fulfill on earth, and it’s with the energy I’ll receive from this baguette that I will be able to do so.

Then, you will have sojourned to Egypt and emerge not only unscathed, but a true spiritual champion.4