By Chana Kroll
It’s one of those things that men will simply never get. Why do I have more energy after spending an hour cleaning out the various junk drawers in my house? Why would anyone feel euphoric just because they can see where the floor in their kids’ room is, rather than making the educated guess that it must be somewhere at the bottom of all those toys? And even if the sight of a clean room makes you smile, why does it make us feel better – lighter even – when we’re standing in a different room entirely, on the other end of the house?
They might prefer to chalk it up to insanity, or to simply being one of those girl things, but I prefer to attribute it to spiritual sensitivity.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the statement, “When G‑d your G‑d shall broaden your borders, as He has promised you, and you will say, I shall eat meat, for your soul shall desire to eat meat, you may eat meat to your souls’ desire.” (Deuteronomy, 12:20)
Rabbi Akiva, one of the foremost scholars and leaders of the Talmudic era, commented that the verse “when G‑d will broaden your boundary” teaches that one should only desire to eat meat in a state of wealth and affluence. At first glance, it seems to be saying that a poor person eating meat would be ostentatious behavior.
Yet, a seemingly contradictory opinion, that of the sage Rabbi Yishmael, is cited together with this one in the classic commentary written by Rashi: “will broaden your boundary” refers to the Jewish nation entering the Land of Israel. The fact that they are cited together, in one commentary, without qualification or resolution, seems to suggest that the real meaning of these two statements somehow explain rather than contradict one another.
The primary wealth of the Jewish people is not material wealth, but our spiritual inheritance – the one possession that has never been nor can be, stolen from us – even temporarily – no matter how many times we’ve been exiled. When read as spiritual affluence, Rabbi Akiva’s statement is explained and made personally relevant to every Jew by Rabbi Yishmael’s commentary.
In the desert, Jews lived a purely spiritual existence. So removed were we from the material world that even the food we ate (the manna) was entirely absorbed into spirituality. There was no physical waste from the manna because there was no part of the food which could not be elevated – so every last molecule of it was absorbed into our bodies, to be utilized as fuel for our spiritual endeavors. In the desert, all of our endeavors were spiritual; we were free from any need to work. The only household chore required of us was to gather the manna.
Our entrance into the Land of Israel was a sudden entry into a world of wars and diplomacy, of settling the Land, of tilling the soil and having to grow and harvest our own food, of having to work with and within the material world.
It should have come as a numbing shock. It should have caused a disastrous descent into empty materialism. In fact, such a result is what ten of the twelve spies who came into the Land in the days of Moses were afraid of. This is why they spoke so negatively about the Land that the people wept over the idea of entering it.
But their fears were misguided. No only did we not descend into crass materialism upon entering the Land, we were able to elevate the material world to a much greater extent than when we were in the desert.
“When G‑d, your G‑d, will broaden your boundary” is actually a reference to the tremendous spiritual abundance we were blessed with when we entered the Land for the first time, a spiritual abundance each of us still possess, however buried it may sometimes feel. With this new wealth, the boundaries of what we could and could not elevate and refine in this world were broadened. One proof for this is in the statement which follows: that we could eat meat according to our heart’s desire.
In the desert, we were only capable of fully elevating meat if it was from an animal which had been sacrificed in the Tabernacle (some offerings had “leftover” parts designated for our consumption). But in the spiritual and material existence we entered when we came into the Land, we could elevate even ordinary meat, meat from an animal which had not been sacrificed.
In other words, in the desert, when our involvement with this world was very limited, we were capable of elevating the world in a limited way. For example, if Jews did eat ordinary meat in the desert, it was not entirely transferred to holiness. But today, each one of us can affect such an elevation.
The key is making time each day to enter the Land, and experience again the broadening of our own inner boundaries. When we engage in explicitly spiritual acts such as prayer, studying Torah, helping someone else, or meditating on our relationship with G‑d and all that He does for us – we enter the spiritual parallel of the Land of Israel.
Punctuating our day with these experiences renews our own ability to lift up even some of the “heavier” components of the world around us. As we read further in the Torah portion which repeats the criteria of kosher animals, we discover yet another dimension to understanding our ideal relationship with materiality. “These are the animals that you may eat: every animal that has a split hoof, that is separated with a split into two hooves, that brings up its cud among animals – it you may eat.” (Deuteronomy 14:4-6)
According to Chassidut, one of the many lessons – perhaps reasons – attached to keeping kosher is related to the spiritual effects of eating certain types of animals. These effects are reflected in the physical form, as well as behavior patterns, of the various animals and birds in existence. We are told specifically to eat only those animals which have split hooves and chew their cud.
A hoof, in Hebrew, is called parsah, which can also mean curtain or separation. An animal, when it stands on its hoof, is separate from the earth he is standing on. When the hoof is fully split, some exposure to the earth is maintained. This teaches us an important lesson about our relationship with materiality. Just as an animal with a split hoof retains a channel through which it is connected with the earth, we’re not meant to seal ourselves off from this world, but rather to stay involved, while simultaneously being elevated above it. From that vantage point, we can take the time to “chew our cud,” to mull over which things we need to work with or partake of, and which we need to simply leave alone.
In doing so, we take control of the material world. We take what is meant for us to take and what we are capable of elevating – and the more we grow spiritually, the more (kosher) possessions we can carry.
One of the reasons why giving charity generously is often a vessel for business growth is that the deed itself lifts us – and our possessions – to a level where more wealth can be carried without leaving us tired, or leaving the wealth itself trapped in a purely material existence. Instead, we put the material world to service for us and do not become slaves to it.
Yet, it isn’t just in the pursuit of material belongings that we have to balance. According to classic works on ethics – an orderly home puts the mind and soul at rest (so if your husband questions your emotional reaction to having an organized closet, tell him there’s a source for it in Torah). Sorting through mounds of our belongings, tossing the genuine garbage, and organizing what is left, is one of many ways of chewing the cud of our corner of the physical world. It’s not that Torah advocates asceticism – but it’s a matter of not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by what we have nor by what we want.
As we sort through things, mulling over their potential uses, and deciding where things best fit, we create an environment where the things we have are serving something larger – us and our families. Which leaves us just a little bit freer to pursue things higher than where we now stand.