WHERE'S THE BEEF?
Rabbi David Walk
Not that long ago I was learning parshat Re'eh, with a wonderful group of eighth graders. We just finished studying the section about kosher animals, and we came to the famous and thrice quoted verse, 'Don't cook a kid in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21).' Then I pointed out to them that just one chapter later we have a list of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Finally, I asked them my question, 'Why is the law about milk and meat always near a list of the three festivals?' It didn't take long for these bright teenagers to suggest that these were the only times when most people ate meat. Meat was expensive and most people were poor. However, on these holidays meat was actually plentiful. There were throngs of people sacrificing thousands of animals with only a day to eat this fresh meat within the walls of Jerusalem. It was barbecue heaven, with a time limit. The topic of carnivorous behavior factors largely in this week's Torah. First of all, we have the rules and lists of kosher animals, then we have the obligation of visiting the Temple site three times yearly with the meaty holiday offerings, but there's another reason.
During the forty years in the desert, the only meat consumption allowed was in the form of offerings in the portable Temple or mishkan. These sacrifices, called shlamim, were voluntary and mostly consumed by the original owner. Certain parts, like some fats (cheilev) and the kidneys, were burned on the altar, other cuts of the animal, like the hip and chest area (shuk v'chazeh), were given to the cohen, but the lion's share was consumed by the donor. These meals became a spiritual experience. This was appropriate during the period in the wilderness, because they were living in close proximity to the mishkan. No one was more than a couple of miles from the national sanctuary. But after they've settled in Israel, the distances grow tremendously. The trip from the far north could take many days. That's a long time to wait for a steak.
The verse in our parsha which introduces this concept reinforces the practicality of the issue. 'When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, 'I will eat meat,' because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul (Deuteronomy 12:20).' We're being told that we can consume meat to our heart's content or 'according to every desire'. Really? Didn't God criticize our desire or 'lust' (ta'ava) for meat?
Back in chapter eleven of Numbers the Torah is very critical of the Jews in the desert who complained about the menu in the desert. The description of their behavior is hitavu ta'ava (they desired desires). It got worse later. When God 'struck a great blow' against those consumers of the quail the place was called kivrot ha'ta'ava (The Graves of the Lust, a great movie title). So, that makes it harder to understand our verse, which makes it sound like having these appetites is absolutely fine.
I think there's a reasonable escape from this conundrum. But you knew I'd say that. If you look at the Rashi on the verse here in Re'eh, he doesn't explain the 'expansion of boundaries' in a geographical sense, but rather in a totally unexpected way: The Torah teaches proper conduct (derech eretz or 'way of the world), that one should not desire to eat meat unless one lives in abundance and wealth (Deuteronomy 12:20, based on the Talmud, Chulin 84a). The word 'abundance' is rachvat yadayim or 'wide hands'. In other words, Rashi is explaining that there are situations when having these lusts and desires is dangerous and counterproductive, but there are other situations when a lust here, a desire there isn't such a bad thing.
What are these different situations? I believe strongly that this concept is taught in those famous but enigmatic verses right before the story of the complaints. Chapter 10 of Numbers ends with: So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. And when it came to rest he would say, Repose O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel. These two verses are set off with inverted Hebrew letter nun's. Some say that this short text is a separate book of the Bible. I like to say that these two verses are so special because they describe the two great situations of life. We are either on the move whether in exile or migration, or we are in settling mode, feathering our nest and expanding our brand.
So, here's my point. when the nation is in crisis, could be exile or war, we should curb our appetites. However, when there is peace and tranquility on the home front, it's fine to want a big, fancy meal. We are being enjoined to a little asceticism when in emergency mode. This ascetic tendency is not absolute, we can still have meat, but in more limited ways. There will be more laws in parshat Ki Tetze, about military behavior, which, I believe, support this contention. And when times are good, with peace and plenty, then we can eat, drink, and be merry. Even then, however, we must eschew total hedonism. There are still laws of kashrut and wealth sharing with the indigent. We believe firmly in celebrating the good times. It shows appreciation and thanksgiving to God for the bounty. But we have to learn to tighten belts when the situation is difficult.
I'm writing these words while indulging in an orgy of calories (actually on ice cream, but the idea's the same) on Derech Chevron in Jerusalem, and there's no shortage of others doing the same. Baruch Hashem, here we are in the situation described in our verse: living with abundance in the land promised to us. May this status remain the norm.