August 2010


The very name of the Torah portion Ki Tavo evokes a central theme: “When you come into the land,” the translation of “ki tavo el ha-aretz,” immediately presents us with a question of boundaries. The land of Israel is, of course, bounded–by the river Jordan on the east, by the Mediterranean Sea on the west. As soon as the Israelites enter into the land, their lives will change. A whole host of commandments and obligations which had heretofore been mental exercises will now be in true political force: the agricultural laws of eretz Yisrael, which ultimately form the basis of an entire economic system. In modern times, these specific issues, along with the greater issues of what it means to enter into the land that is ours, have been recapitulated with the success of Zionism.

Central to this question of coming into the land is a related concept, that of home. Moses beautifully blesses the Israelites with success if they will follow God’s law: “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field… Blessed shall you be in your coming, and blessed shall you be in your going.” (Deut. 28: 3, 6) The commentators offer a number of approaches to understanding what these blessings hold. But I want to focus on a comment of Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, author of the twentieth century work Torah Temimah, who raises a question for us: “Most plainly, the verse should have been written thus: ‘Blessed will you be in your going, and blessed will you be in your coming.’ For a person first goes out of his home to the field, and afterwards comes home to his house.” (Torah Temimah Deut. 28:9)

Rabbi Epstein offers us a question that is so basic we might have missed it: How do we think of home? Is home the place we go from, or is home the place we go to? Of course, on a certain level this is an academic question: home is the place we sleep at night, it is the beginning and the end of our daily journey. But if we push further, we come to a very salient question in our own lives: In the relationship between home and work, between our house and our field, which is primary?

In our day and age, this question has become even more complicated, because the relationship between city and countryside has been altered. In the times of the Torah and the Talmud, cities had walls–boundaries–and it was easy to tell where the city ended and where the field began. In our day and age, when we have suburbs and exurbs, when our cities no longer have gates, it is much harder to tell where the boundary lies. Likewise, our work comes home with us, and our home goes to work with us. Our Blackberries and iPhones work in two directions.

We sometimes like to think that modernity has fundamentally changed the relationship of people with their work, that our homes and workplaces have somehow become violently separated in the last three hundred years. But Ki Tavo reminds us that these issues are actually quite old, that we have, for a long time, wrestled with how to successfully integrate the different parts of our lives. The key, it seems to me, is not searching for balance, but rather living with integrity–bringing together work and home, city and field, in a life of blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

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One of the basic ideas of the Torah is that of limitation. As my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has taught for decades, the Torah, an expression of the covenantal relationship of God and Israel, is God’s way of bridging the ideal and the real. God’s initial attempt at creating the world ultimately fails, because human beings cannot live up to the standards that God has set. So after the flood, God makes accommodation for human beings.

In particular, God allows humans to eat meat—something they had been prohibited from doing in the ten generations before Noah. There are limitations: humans are not to eat blood, and we may not eat the limb of a living animal. But within these limitations, meat is now allowed, a concession to human nature.

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we find Moses’s recapitulation of these rules, with new dimensions: sacrifices may only be offered in the place God designates for sacrifice. And while Moses indicates that eating meat in non-ceremonial moments is fine anyplace, he prefaces his remarks with this statement: “When the LORD your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, “I would like some meat,” then you may eat as much of it as you want” (Deut. 12:20). The word Moses uses here to describe “craving” is ta’avah.

Ta’avah is a non-rational instinct, a craving, a longing, something that we often associate not only with food but with sex. The ethical teachings of the Torah and the Rabbis generally emphasize overcoming or channeling one’s ta’avot. So it is worth considering what this word means in this context. More specifically, does the idea of eating meat as ta’avah mean that we should ultimately strive not to give into it?

The Talmud seems to move in this direction:

Our Rabbis taught: “When the LORD your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, ‘I would like some meat.’” The Torah here teaches a rule of conduct, that a person should not eat meat unless he has a passionate desire for it.

One might think that this means that a person should buy [meat] in the market and eat it; the text therefore states: ‘Then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock.’

One might then think that this means that he should kill all his herd and eat and all his flock and eat. The text therefore states: ‘Of thy herd’, and not all thy herd; ‘of thy flock’ and not all thy flock.

(Babylonian Talmud Hullin 84b)

The Talmud here seems to indicate that, indeed, eating meat is something we should only do if we have a ta’avah, a passionate desire for it. And, even further, we shouldn’t take meat lightly: we should ideally kill it ourselves, not buy it in the market; and we should be very conservative in the amount of meat we kill and consume.

One of the features of modern American Jewish life is the high degree of material comfort our community has achieved. Many Jews can afford to eat meat frequently. And yet the Talmud, and the Torah itself, call us to be challenged. Simply put, we need to discipline ourselves. Our ta’avot, our desires, are important—they are God-given, and they are not to be ignored, they are not meant to cause us pain. But they are not meant to be easily indulged, either. As my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss has taught, ta’avot are to be channeled. Jewish laws and ethics of sexuality are meant to channel our sexual desires; the laws of Shabbat channel our ta’avot to exercise power (or, more contemporarily, to check our email); the laws of kashrut help us channel our ta’avot for food. Not coincidentally, these three drives—sex, power, and food—are the ones identified by Freud as the most powerful in human nature.

Our relationship with animals, and our relationship with food, is both expressive and constitutive of our nature. It is fundamental, and it something we often take for granted. The Torah challenges us to be conscious of our eating, to sanctify ourselves, to be holy through our food. Of those three drives—sex, power, and food—the latter is the one with which we have the most frequent daily contact. It is therefore all the more important for us to be conscious, to be holy, in the way we eat meat and the way we consume food.

Shabbat shalom.