Parshat Reeh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
Parshat Re’eh is the first of a series of four Torah portions that contain a slew of commandments the Jewish People is given as they enter the Land of Israel. Some of those commandments were already relevant when the Jews were in the desert, and are repeated in this parsha. This repetition is typical of the book of Devarim, and it’s the reason the book is called Mishneh Torah”.
There are, however, a number of new mitzvot mentioned here for the first time. The Jewish People was about to enter the Land of Israel, and the time had come to reveal commandments that would henceforth be applicable. One of those commandments is described in the following verse:
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. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:20)
At face value, this verse states that when we live in the Land of Israel, we may eat meat to our hearts’ content.
However, the original intent of the verse gets lost in this translation. The verse didn’t merely permit the Jewish People to consume meat; it also provided a specific setting, specifying that this permission to eat meat is somehow contingent on the fulfillment of the first part of the verse: “when God expands your boundaries”.
This connection seems vague and irrelevant. After all, what does eating meat have to do with political geography?
A simple explanation is that unlike in the desert, where the Jewish People was commanded to slaughter all animals in the ohel moed, the Tent of Meeting, they were permitted to eat meat to their hearts’ content within the Land of Israel, perhaps because the Temple was now so distant.
However, the verse didn’t simply say “when you come to the Land of Israel” – it went further, specifying a time when “God will expand your borders”. This hints to some type of expansion that is also a precondition for eating meat.
Rashi’s commentary on the verse reads as follows:
The Torah teaches proper conduct, that one should not desire to eat meat unless in abundance and wealth.
What is Rashi trying to teach us here?
Our needs as human beings aren’t simply a function of biology or health. That isn’t human nature. People often glance at their friends and neighbors, somehow convinced that they must do what others are doing, even if they can’t afford to do so. Even though objectively speaking, their basic needs are fulfilled, they struggle with the feeling that they lack something.
Therefore, the Torah teaches us derech eretz, common decency, specifying that a person should only eat meat (which, at that time, was synonymous with excessiveness), if the person was living comfortably. In other words, if you have meat, then, by all means, eat it, but if not, don’t go out of your way to get it.
By extension, the Torah is telling us that living luxuriously is legitimate, if you can finance this type of lifestyle. No one should constantly desire things that are out of reach.
The concept of sufficing in what we have may be particularly pertinent to this day and age, in our world of plenty. With so much abundance everywhere, we might lose the ability to discern between what we truly need, and what we merely crave. We often forget that our parents’ generation could only dream about owning the objects we’re convinced we couldn’t live without – like our fancy cars, weekend getaways, and smartphones.
We go into a tailspin that puts a strain on our household budgets and makes us feel bitter and frustrated when we can’t afford things that our friends have.
This is precisely where the Torah’s teachings come into play. When the going is rough, everyone tightens their belts and it’s easier for us to celebrate what we share in common. It’s when we’re better off that the dividing lines between social classes become sharper, and this is when we need to nurture our ability to be happy with what we have, and not covet what we don’t. Therefore, the Torah teaches us derech eretz – to keep us from eating meat when we don’t have the means to do so.
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