Among the mitzvot enumerated in parshat Emor is this one, familiar to us from the Torah reading from many of our holidays: “Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day” (Lev. 22:28). Maimonides and Nachmanides famously disagree on how to understand this commandment. In his Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam includes this verse along with the commandment (Deut. 22:6) to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs from the nest. “There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes. The purpose of both commandments is to alleviate the suffering of the animals.

Ramban disagrees. “The real reason” for both mitzvot “is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy, that we may not become cruel, for cruelty envelops the entire personality of man, as is well known from the example of professional animal killers who often become hardened to human suffering” (Ramban on Deut. 22:6). Where Maimonides sees the purpose of the mitzvot here as focused on the suffering of the animals, Nachmanides sees them as addressing human moral development. Ramban cites the teaching of Abba Gurya in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:14), who evaluates a number of unfavorable occupations and concludes by saying “even the best of slaughterers is a companion of Amalek.” Which is to say, killing for a living ultimately leads to cruelty in human relations. (Nechama Leibowitz’s second essay on this parasha develops these positions further.)

Neither Rambam nor Ramban could have imagined a world in which meat came to the mouths of people without some exposure to the process of killing. While death was a more regular feature of pre-modern, and certainly pre-industrial life, its ubiquity also had the effect of humanizing it. It was normal to kill an animal for food, and it was known by sages throughout the ages that too much killing would make a person cruel. Today, however, most of us who eat meat never interact with the animals we’re eating. Indeed, the thought that the beef or chicken on our plate was once an actual living creature grosses us out. We are not used to animal life, and we’re not used to animal death either.

Thus animal-welfare conversations today tend to focus more on the Rambam’s line of thinking: it’s about animal welfare, or animal rights. If we’re vegetarians, or if we simply advocate for greater sensitivity in ritual slaughter or the raising of livestock, we make our arguments in terms of the welfare of the animal. We don’t tend to adopt the Ramban’s line of thinking, because we’ve industrialized the process of slaughter to the point that, like the gas in our cars that we never actually see, the meat that arrives on our supermarket shelves wrapped in plastic is divorced in our imagination from any human process other than stocking it on the counter.

But what if we did? What if the question in our consumption of meat, and food in general, was more about what kind of moral and ethical development it entails and leads to? This, after all, is the Rambam’s ultimate point: the purpose of showing compassion for animals is to cultivate our sense of compassion for all of God’s creation, including human beings. It is to fulfill the Rambam’s understanding of the ultimate imperative of the mitzvot, v’halachta bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways.

That is the greater challenge of kashrut (a challenge which my colleagues at Uri l’Tzedek tirelessly address). God is not mechanized. Our relationship with God, and with one another, shouldn’t be either.

Shabbat shalom.

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One of the keywords of Parshat Beshallach is really two words with the same root. The first is milchama, the Hebrew word for war. The second is lechem, which means bread.

The opening verses of the parasha set the stage for the final battle between God and the Egyptians: “When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle” (Ex. 13:17-18). This last clause, describing the Israelites as chamushim, ‘ready for battle,’ is extraneous–the text could read just as well without it. The commentators point to several possibilities for its inclusion: the verse explains how the Israelites were prepared for making war against Amalek (which will happen later in the parasha); or, famously, that the word chamushim indicates that only one-fifth (chomesh) of the people came out of Egypt.

But I would argue that the clause serves two additional purposes. First, it marks a fulfillment of Pharaoh’s original concern back in chapter 1 of Exodus: “‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country'” (1:9-10). While it sounded crazy at the time, it turns out Pharaoh was right: the Israelites have indeed left Egypt, and now they’re ready to do battle against him.

Second, the emphasis on milchama here presages Moses’s dramatic announcement to the people just before the sea is split: “The LORD will fight for you (yilachem lachem); and you will be silent” (14:14). It is not the Israelites who fight; rather it is God. And thus they sing, “Adonai ish milchama,” “The LORD is a man of war” (15:3). God is the one who does battle. The placement of milchama in this first half of the parasha is the culmination of the plagues: God not only does wonders, but God does battle against the Egyptian oppressor as well.

It also hearkens to the ending of the parasha, when Amalek comes and makes war, vayilachem, against Israel. Here the people do have to take matters into their own hands. But they are also still dependent on God, as victory requires that Moses hold up his arms for the duration of the war. The people are not entirely dependent on God, but God is still very much involved in their battles. The eternal war against Amalek will be one fought by Israel on God’s behalf.

In the middle of the parasha, we find the same root–lamed, chet, mem–but with a different meaning. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the bread (lechem) we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death'” (16:2-3). This complaint results in God providing manna, which is here referred to as lechem: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you'” (16:4). In fact, over the course of chapter 16, the word lechem appears eight times–signifying its centrality to the narrative.

The juxtaposition of these two words that look identical, lechem and milchama, bread and war, is striking. Hasidic thinkers, including the Kedushas Levi and Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, have picked up on the similarities in the words in order to understand the relationship between them more deeply. The latter explains that every time we eat, a battle takes place between the holy and the unholy. Our eating can become an act of sanctification, reflection, and improvement; or it can become an act of baseness, coarseness, and vulgarity. If we take the time to prepare, to focus, and to make our eating purposeful and intentional, we can make the act into one of holiness. But if we eat quickly, inhaling our food and failing to acknowledge its significance, then we are no more than animals satisfying our base desires.

We can make one more observation: the centerpiece of the story of the manna is Shabbat. The manna would appear six days a week, and on Friday a double portion would appear. On Shabbat there would be none–Friday’s had to suffice. Thinking of the wordplay between lechem and milchama, we can also consider that Shabbat is a time when we should be at peace, a time when our entire awareness–in food, clothing, behavior, and time itself–is no longer in a state of milchama, but in a state of lechem mishneh, a double portion of bread. On Shabbat we aim to live without the battles of the workweek, and instead transform them into a source of sustenance.

Shabbat shalom.

 

At about the midpoint of Parshat Ekev, Moses recounts the episode of the Golden Calf and his subsequent re-ascending of Sinai: “At that time, God said to me, ‘Carve yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make yourself an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first ones that you broke. And you will put them in the ark. And I made an ark of acacia, and I carved two stone tablets like the first, and I went up the mountain with the tablets in my hand. And He wrote on the tablets like the writing on the first ones, the The Commandments that God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of assembly. And God gave them to me. And I turned and went down from the mountain, and I put the tablets in the ark I had made, and they were there just as God commanded.'” (Deut. 10:1-5).

This account immediately poses some challenges when compared with the account of the same events in Exodus. Rashi points us to one: According to one view (Rashi’s), work on the Mishkan didn’t begin until after Moses had come down from the mountain. So how is it possible that Moses built the ark before he went up, since the ark is part–the centerpiece!–of the Mishkan? Answer: There were two arks, one that went out to war and one that stayed in the camp. This was the latter.

Ramban, unsurprisingly, disagrees: “This is a sole opinion. Throughout the Talmud, the Rabbis’ consensus view was consistent: There was one ark. The second tablets and the remnants of the first tablets were both put into the ark… This ark that Moses made: when Bezalel made his ark (the one that would enter the Mishkan), Moses buried his ark, according to the law regarding holy objects.”

Fascinating: Both commentators see an issue in the text, namely the apparent existence of two arks, and they come to strikingly different conclusions. Rashi argues for the existence of two arks, a view which, among other things, emphasizes that that which is holy cannot go out to war–death being the antithesis of the Holy of Holies. Ramban likewise maintains that the ark could not go out to war, but he goes a different route, saying that there was never a second ark. The ark mentioned here by Moses is a temporary ark, but bears a continuity of relationship with the ark that would ultimately be created by Bezalel and put in the Holy of Holies. “For Moses was commanded to build the Mishkan from the beginning [of his time on Mt. Sinai], and building the ark was the first commandment [in the building process]… For this was the entire purpose of the Mishkan, to enable God to sit on the cherubs.”

A striking feature of this early ark is its simplicity: it is not gilded, as the later ark would be. It is a plain box–much like the coffin in a traditional Jewish burial. And in this it seems to highlight one of the larger themes of Parshat Ekev: the humility and simplicity at the heart of a life of the service of God. Throughout the parsha, Moses exhorts the people to listen to God, to love God, and to serve God simply and humbly. In particular, he highlights the paradox of physicality: our existence in, and attraction to, the material world on the one hand, and the potential of the material world to trap and enslave us on the other.

You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut. 8:2-3).

This same theme is evoked time and again in the parsha: we are to live in the material world and transcend it at the same time. While this paradox propels the episodes of the Golden Calf and the spies, which receive extensive treatment in the parsha, our most constant reminder of it is in our eating. Thus the parsha contains the commandment to bless God when we eat: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). The next line reminds us of why: “Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today.”

It is too easy to forget, to be lulled into the sense that all this is all there is, and that we have full control over it. Moses reminds the people, again and again, that in order to become all that they (we) can be, we must embrace the materials of the world, and live with them simply, humbly, and with a greater sense of awareness and gratitude.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

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.

The Torah portion of Ekev continues Moses’s main discourse in Deuteronomy, a combination of soaring rhetorical flourishes and reminders to remember the past. The second paragraph of the Shema comes from this week’s Torah portion, as do the classic words, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul.” (Deut. 10:12)

In the middle of all of this is a beautiful passage about the land of Israel: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey.” (Deut. 8:7-8). This is standard Deuteronomic stuff, and not especially worth mentioning, except for the fact that from this passage–verse 8, specifically–the Rabbis derived an important halakhic concept,  namely the order in which various foods should be blessed.

A classic test of a yeshiva student’s skill was to place a table full of foods in front of him and see if he could correctly determine the proper order in which they were to be eaten. Verse 8 establishes such an order: Wheat and barley (grains), grapes, figs and pomegranates (fruits), olive oil and honey (foods derived from a process). So if one had bread, an apple, olive oil, and wine on the table, the correct order in which to eat them would be: bread, wine, apple, oil, following the order of the verse. There are tricks within the system (such as, for instance, the way we drink wine on Shabbat and holidays before we eat bread; we therefore cover the bread, so as not to violate the order prescribed by this verse).

Why do I bring up such a seemingly mundane item? Because Moses’s next words give us the commandment of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals: “When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” Moses instructs thanksgiving over food quite early on in the commandments of Deuteronomy–before the social legislation of the upcoming Torah portions; before the commandments about the holidays, or even about idolatry (Moses recounts the episode of the Golden Calf in the chapter after this one). This is very significant, because it establishes that awareness of our eating is one of the key foundation stones of the Torah’s envisioned civilization. As Moses reminds the Israelites a few verses earlier: “Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

There is a growing movement among Jews and in the general society to be much more conscious of our food–of where it comes from, what it consists of, who made it, its carbon footprint. This is a very important thing, and it marks a return to the values of the Torah. Next week we will receive the laws of kashrut again from Moses; but this week, even before being reminded of the technicalities of kashrut, we are reminded to be aware, to pay attention, to be humble, and to be thankful. We indeed live in world like the one Moses describes: we “live in cities with walls that reach to the sky,” where “the people are strong and tall.” It is precisely in this environment that Moses reminds the Israelites and us that we must pay attention and remember the giant significance of tiny actions.

Shabbat shalom.