by R. Gil Student
Everyone likes the feeling of getting a new toy. Whether you are a child and it’s a literal toy or you are an adult and it is whatever “thing” makes you happy — clothes, gadgets, food, exercise equipment, or — my favorite — books. When it is on its way, you have this excited feeling of anticipation. When it arrives, you experience joy. You use your “thing” for a short amount of time and then the excitement fades away and the only excitement you have left is looking forward to ordering another. With the advent of online shopping, this process has become easier, and more financially dangerous. Yet, inevitably, we always tire quickly of our new toy. The excitement is short-lived. Why is that? Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger, the nineteenth century German author of Arukh La-Ner, offers an insight to Parashas Re’eh that answers this question.
The Torah (Deut. 12:20-21) tells us that when God enlarges the boundaries of our land, when we as a nation are spread out far from the Temple in Jerusalem, we might decide we want to eat meat. This is allowed. If we desire meat, we can slaughter it in a kosher way (as God commanded us) and eat as we desire.
The Gemara (Chullin 17a) tells us that R. Akiva and R. Yishmael disagreed about the change, the innovation to Jewish behavior, that this passage teaches. According to R. Akiva, the slaughter requirement was a chumra, a stringency. In the Sinai desert, the Jews could eat meat even without slaughtering it. Once they entered Israel, they had to slaughter meat properly. In contrast, R. Yishmael believes that in the desert, if the Jews wanted to eat meat, they were only allowed to eat from a sacrifice brought in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Can you imagine what this would mean once the Jews were spread throughout the land of Israel? If someone wanted a steak for dinner, he and his family would have to travel to Jerusalem to bring a sacrifice and eat it there. In acknowledgment of the difficulty that this would involve, the Torah allows them to eat non-sacred meat, if slaughtered properly.
For R. Akiva, the distance from the mizbei’ach, the holy altar, meant that Jews had to be more mindful of God when they prepared meat. We used to be able to eat meat that is killed in any way. Now we can only eat meat that is slaughtered properly. Kosher slaughtering was introduced to normal, non-sacred life due to the distance from the Temple.
But for R. Yishmael, is the distance from the Temple merely a practical matter? Is it just that since realistically we can’t have sacred meat, we are allowed to eat non-sacred meat? Or is there a deeper meaning to the distance from the Temple?
Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger, in his Minchas Ani (Parashas Re’eh), explains that the distance from the Temple is connected to the desire to eat meat. When our soul, the spiritual part of our personality, lacks nourishment, we instinctively try to satisfy that need. We are far from the Temple, from the height of religious activity. Our inner selves, our bodies and souls, know that we are missing something and try to fill that void. We feel that need but we don’t always fill it in the best way. Sometimes we respond to boredom, to emptiness, by eating. Sometimes we respond by shopping.
The Torah allows this. We are allowed to eat meat if we desire it, even if that desire is driven by a spiritual lacking, by a distance from the spiritual activity of the Temple. However, if we stop there, if we all we do is eat and shop, we are taking spiritual aspirin to heal the symptom without addressing the underlying cause. When we keep buying new toys, we will never be satisfied because deep down, we have a spiritual need. Amazon Prime will never heal our spiritual distance from God.
We can eat meat, we can play with gadgets, but if we want to address the root cause, we need to fill our souls with Torah and prayer. The old saying is that you should never go grocery shopping when you are hungry because your hunger will drive you to buy more than you need. We learn a twist on that: you should never go online shopping when you are spiritually hungry because you will never satisfy your needs with more things.