Permission to eat meat
Elsewhere in the Torah we are taught the rules for eating meat as part of the system of animal sacrifices but in this week’s parsha the Torah specifically permits the consumption of meat for pleasure. We are told (Devarim 12:21) that if we choose, we may eat meat simply because we want to:
כי־ירחק ממך המּקום אשׁר יבחר הי אלקיך לשום שׁמו שׁם וזבחת מבקרך ומצאנך אשׁר נתן הי לך כאשׁר צותך ואכלת בשׁעריך בכל אות נפשך
If the place where God has chosen to establish the divine name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that God gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements.
The language of the Torah here is astonishing. The Torah seems to be legitimizing something that was terribly destructive forty years earlier amidst a gluttonous craving among the Israelites as they wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!” (Bamidbar 11:4). The תאוה or desire for meat at that point in our journey to the Land of Israel led to the catastrophe of Kivrot ha’Ta’avah.
So why is Hashem now suddenly permitting us to satisfy the תאוה, our urge to eat meat?
The simple explanation is present in the pesukim. At Kivrot ha’Ta’avah the people were rebelling against the Divine gift of manna. But on entering Israel there would be no more manna and once we entered Israel not everyone would be able to easily come to the Temple to eat sacrificial meat.
Therefore, God permitted us to consume meat should we choose to do so.
If we look at Tehillim 107 we see it is about our deliverance from Egypt and our journey through the desert. The fifth verse states:
Hungry and thirsty, their spirit failed.
The Ba’al Shem Tov asked a simple question based on this verse and he taught a remarkable lesson. He asked, how does food, which is material and tangible, nourish the spirit which is neither material nor tangible?
He answered that in food there are “sparks” which are spiritual and holy. When eaten properly (which means for the proper motives) these hidden sparks are what nourish the soul.
In discussing our parsha, the Sfat Emet elaborates on this idea of the Ba’al Shem Tov explaining the following.
When the Torah says we may eat meat “When Hashem enlarges your territory,” it does not refer to territory on a map. It also does not refer to meat, per se. The Torah is talking about one’s spiritual territory and everyone is born with a certain spark of holiness and it is our job to make that spark grow. When a person has enlarged his or her holiness, the next task is to expand the realm of holiness in this world and this is achieved by liberating the sparks concealed in the rest of Creation.
Everything in this world seeks to be elevated towards God and as the Baal Shem Tov said, food in particular has holy “sparks,” which nourish the soul.
Eating meat is just one example of the many opportunities people have to enjoy something in this world while simultaneously making themselves and the world holier.