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Eating Meat to Unify Jews: Decoding A Hidden Message

Everyone in the world finds an excuse to reject others. Now, as well as throughout history, countless purists among us have said, “we don’t talk to those people – they are not suitable as friends or colleagues, or even as – [gasp] – family.” The Torah, in the verses I will discuss below, is telling us that we are commanded to not do that. We do not separate from others just because they are not as pure or good or holy as we think we are. In the Torah, being judgmental is entirely fine (within the limits of embarrassing others), but we are forbidden (here and elsewhere) from excluding in key cases.

How can I prove it? The Torah offers a very similar phrase repeated three different times in near-sequence:

But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your cities, according to the blessing that your G-d has granted you. The un-elevatable and the elevatable alike are to partake of it, as of the ram and the deer. (Deut. 12:15)

Eat [meat], however, as the ram and the deer are eaten: the un-elevatable are to eat it together with the elevatable. (Deut. 12:22)

Eat [meat] in your cities, the un-elevatable together with the elevatable, just like the ram and the deer. (Deut. 15:22)

What is fascinating about decoding this sequence is that every single word chosen connects to its usage earlier in the text. Together, it tells the whole story. The challenge is that there are so many strands in the story that it is hard to follow if built brick-by-brick. So instead I will first present the conclusion, and then show how it builds directly from the text.

Conclusion: The Torah is telling us that eating meat is something we must do to unify those who would otherwise separate from each other. The phrase appears three times because there were three great “separations” that we are to aim to never repeat: Avraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau.

It seems like a ridiculous leap in logic, does it not? Yet I think that when the evidence is laid out, it seems entirely obvious! Here goes:

Elevatable vs Un-Elevatable

This is my translation of the words tamei and tahor that are sometimes translated as “clean and unclean” or “pure and impure.” I choose my translation because of how the words are used in the text: one category (pure/clean/elevatable) are in a state that allows for one to reconnect, to strive for holiness, capable of spiritual growth or elevation. And those in the opposite category are not able to spiritually grow; they are unwilling or unable to do so.

The first “elevatable” are the animals of which Noach brings seven pairs. They are used in an “elevation” offering after the flood, and a connection between Noach and G-d is made in that process. The same “elevation” offering is what Avraham brings at the Binding of Isaac; the ram is an elevation offering.

The first mention of the opposite word, tamei, non-elevatable, describes Dinah when she is raped. Dinah is ruined by the experience; she has no meaningful future in the text. Being un-elevatable is not necessarily a permanent state in a person – the Torah later offers a way for us to repair our spiritual wounds from rape. But in many people, a lack of interest in spiritual connection is a feature of their personality or life choices, and may never change.

So the reference to the elevatable and the un-elevatable is about people who are not equally ready, willing or able to spiritually grow in a relationship with G-d.

Which People are Rejected for being Un-Elevatable?

Lot. Avraham comes into Canaan with his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot. But they became rich in livestock:

And the land could not support them, to settle together, for their property was so great that they were not able to settle together. (Gen. 13:6)

So Avraham suggests that Lot goes his own way. In doing so, Avraham prioritizes his living animals over his living relatives. Perhaps he did this because Lot did not seem particularly inclined toward holiness. When offered a choice of where to go, Lot chooses Sodom because the land was thoroughly watered, satiated by drink. Lot is attracted to physical reproduction and potential, not spiritual potential. He was un-elevatable. And Avraham sent him away, for the sake of their mutual material interests.

Ishmael. Sarah sends Hagar and her son Ishmael away – she rejects Ishmael because he seems to be a negative influence on Isaac. Isaac is described in the Torah as a “wild ass of a man,” and he grows up to become an archer. Ishmael is more connected to the animalistic and physical plane than to the spiritual one. So he was rejected, in favor of Isaac.

Esau. Described as a “skillful hunter, a man of the fields,” Esau, like Ishmael, tends toward more of a loner existence, with man as the apex predator in the natural, wild world. He, too, is rejected, for the same reasons Lot was:

For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock. (Gen. 36:7)

Note that there are three people who are sent away by our forefathers – and our original phrase referring to the “elevatable and un-elevatable” also appears three times!

Eating Meat

In the Torah, we are told we can eat the plants (Gen. 1:29-30). But eating meat is only allowed after the flood.

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. (Gen. 9:3)

Why specifically then? Because Noach had saved his family, he had saved the animals, and he offered an elevation-offering (Gen. 8:20) – the very first in the Torah. Elevating to – connecting with – G-d is explicitly linked to eating “elevatable” animals (cloven hoofs making a break with the ground, etc.).

(This, by the way, is why the Torah stresses (with Noach as well as with our verses) that we are never to eat blood – just the meat. Blood is associated with the spirit of the animal, with the Esau or Ishmael qualities – and we are supposed to use meat to go more toward G-d and away from the animal-spirit world.)

Since Noach uses elevatable animals to make an elevation-offering – and then G-d permits the eating of meat – meat is thus always linked to a relationship with the divine.

But there is another, critical reason why the Torah wants us to eat meat to unify people: recall that Lot and Esau are sent away because there was not enough land to support all the living animals.

If Avraham and Lot, and Jacob and Esau had decided to eat some of their animals in order to stay together, all of history would have been different. Had they only eaten meat together, the elevatable and the un-elevatable, then some degree of unity would have been maintained.

I think the Torah is telling us a simple message: we must never put animals ahead of people. We must never put our material wealth ahead of our human relationships, above unity and connection with our family, even if we consider our family members to be beneath us, indeed even if they, like Ishmael and Esau, are not remotely interested in spiritual growth!

The Ram and the Deer

A ram, an ayil, is a deeply symbolic animal in the Torah: a ram is sacrificed in place of Isaac in an elevation offering, the sound of the ram’s horn pierces the air at the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and during Rosh Hashanah, the coronation of G-d as King. The ram is not merely a kosher animal. It is perhaps the very elite kosher animal. The ram and the Jew have a lot in common: they are both headstrong creatures, literally leading with their heads at every opportunity. And while they can be found in flocks, they can also (as in the case of the Binding of Isaac) be loners.

It is the ram that completes the argument: the ram is traded for Isaac in an elevation offering, which means it is associated with elevation, as well as with Isaac. The other animal, whether a deer or a hart or a gazelle (your translation may vary), is quite clearly distinct, because all of those animals, unlike a ram, are undomesticable: they are wild and they live in the forests and fields. When we catch them it is because they have been hunted, as Esau and Ishmael did. They symbolize a person who lives an unrestrained life, a free spirit, a person who may well be more focused on physical existence and physical pleasure than on climbing spiritual heights.

All of these animals are kosher, but the deer cannot be offered as a sacrifice – while rams are a key part of many offerings (including installing the priests). They were routinely part of elevation offerings, like those offered by Noach and Avraham at the Binding of Isaac. Jacob also explicitly raised rams, and gave them to Esau as gifts. Ram-skins were also used in the construction of the tabernacle, the mishkan.

So the ram reminds us of Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And the wilder animal reminds us of Lot (who sought green, well-watered fields above all else), Ishmael (the “wild ass of a man” who became an archer), and Esau (the hunter and man of the fields). The three “elevatable” men lead their own flocks, as rams seek to do. And the three “un-elevatable” men went their own loner paths. Even Lot, the only one of the three who moved to a city, clearly refused to submit to the rules of those around him. He, too, was un-domesticable.

Loose ends:

Noach’s Unifying Force

Noach is often criticized for not saving more people. But we sometimes fail to recognize the magnitude of what he did do: he saved his own family. He kept them together, even though his sons were not all equally good people (as we discover). Noach unifies, and he saves what he can. This is a contrast to the later characters, who allowed their families to spin apart. The verses we find in Deuteronomy directly echo the verses after the flood.

Together, As One

Within the initial three verses, the word “as one” or “together”, yachdav, appears only two times. This corresponds to the two times the word is used later – with Avram and Lot being unable to live together, and the same with Jacob and Esau. Ishmael was not rejected for the same reason, which explains why yachdav is not mentioned in all three verses.

The exemplar of “togetherness”, yachdav, is found at the giving of the Torah: “All those assembled answered as one [yachdav], saying, “All that G-d has spoken we will do!”

Cities

The first city was built by Cain, and the second was built in Babel. Neither distinguished themselves by being good places – quite the contrary. Cain’s actions divided people, and Babel, with its single-minded purpose, eliminated the individuality of mankind. Sodom and Gomorrah were cities that institutionalized evil. All of these cities were unable to spiritually elevate.

The cities referred to in our selected verses, by contrast, seek to bring people together, without pretending that all the people are the same. The text does not deny that there are people who are elevatable and un-elevatable, rams and deer. It merely tells us to seek the opportunity to unify when we can, to eat meat together. This vision of a Jewish city is a strong contrast from the cities found in Genesis. Our cities are not supposed to suppress the individual, forcing people to be the same. Instead, we bring people together, fully cognizant of the tension that results from that kind of uneasy unification. Nevertheless, we eat meat in your in your cities, the un-elevatable together with the elevatable, just like the ram and the deer.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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