Elevating the Mundane
Parashat R’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Jared Eaton, Congregation Simchat Yisrael, West Haven, CT
This week’s parasha, Re’eh, presents Judaism with one of its most divisive and controversial dilemmas: Why can’t I eat cheeseburgers?!
In our pleasure dominated culture, the cheeseburger may be the ultimate symbol of hedonistic self-indulgence. The seamless blend of juicy meat, rich cheese, fresh bread, (forgive me, I’m writing this right before lunch) and just enough vegetables to make you feel better about yourself for stuffing your face with so many calories!
It may be the perfect food! And yet, we faithful Jews are to be forever denied the untold decadence of this most glorious cuisine! Because unfortunately for us, cheeseburgers are the classic example of non-kosher food.
And not just because the meat might not be properly slaughtered. Even if it is slaughtered correctly, according to Jewish law, the burger would still be non-kosher because meat and cheese cannot be mixed together.
The problem with this, is that if you look in the Torah you won’t find a verse that actually says this. It would seem like such a simple thing to say; “Thou shalt not cook meat and milk together.” And yet, the actual written Torah expresses this law very differently. The verse from this week’s Parasha from which we derive this kashrut law states:
You are not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy 14:21
Millions of hungry Jews over the years have rationalized that: “Well I’m not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, so I can eat this cheeseburger without literally breaking any commandments!”
What’s going on here? Why does the written Torah say one thing and the Oral Tradition, which explains these laws to us, tell us something different?
For that matter why do we need any more laws in the first place? We already have 613 of them! Isn’t that more than enough! Doesn’t the addition of even more laws and rules and regulations and proscriptions and protocols simply get in the way of achieving the elevated level of spirituality that God wants us all to attain?
If the purpose of Torah is to guide us spiritually, then wouldn’t we be better served if it just talked about lofty, overarching concepts like love and peace? What’s with all these rules and minutia? How can you have a loving relationship with God based on following laws?
The hard thing about the Law is that the greater part of it is pretty mundane. Sure there are some great and noble commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” But the vast majority of it is just little details.
But so is life. One of my favorite hobbies is hiking in the mountains. When you’re hiking, every once in a while, you get to an amazing summit or a breathtaking vista, but in between those climaxes are what I call the Trudge. The seemingly endless miles of plain old uninteresting forest that separate one highlight from another. That’s kind of like life.
Sure, there are incredible moments in all of our lives: getting married, having kids, taking vacations; but in between, we all have our own daily Trudges of commuting, board meetings, and picking up the kids from school.
So how are we to approach life? Do we just put up with the Trudge in order to get to the exciting parts or is there value to be had in the Trudge as well?
The Torah’s position is very clear. There is great value and great spirituality to be found in the Trudge, in the mundane details of life. That’s where Law comes in.
The purpose of Law is to take the great ideals like Love and Peace, and find ways for us to express them in our everyday lives. We need to do this for two reasons.
First, if we don’t, then everyday life truly is just a Trudge. Mundane and meaningless. Torah takes the Trudge and transforms it into a beautiful mountaintop of its own.
Second, if we fail to act out these great values, then the ideals themselves may be lost, because we will lose our everyday grasp of them.
Imagine a man who loves his wife. All day long he sits and meditates on how much he loves her, how special she is to him, what a unique and wonderful person she is. Meanwhile his wife is taking care of the baby and cleaning the house and doing all the cooking by herself.
How impressed is this man’s wife going to be with him and his ideal of love? Not very! Eventually she will come to him and tell him that if he really loves her, he won’t just think about it, he will act on it. Even if it’s in small, mundane ways, like helping out in the kitchen or changing some diapers, these things elevate the idea of love into a true act of love.
So what does all this have to do with why I can’t eat a succulent cheeseburger? Just as that man brought the great ideal of Love into the everyday acts of mundane housework, the Torah gives us the opportunity to take the ideals of Justice, Kindness, and Mercy and transform them into actions that we can do every day.
This is where the Oral Tradition comes in. Where the written Torah will express a lofty ideal, the traditions will find a way for us to express that ideal in our everyday lives.
So in our case, there is an overarching ideal presented in the Torah, the value of all living things. We have been given permission by God to kill and consume animals, but there are limits. We are called to understand what it is we are doing when we take the life of another living creature for food.
Milk is more than just something you buy at a store, it’s a source of life. It’s how a mother nurtures her child. Meat is the opposite of milk. It’s the death of that animal. We have permission to eat meat and to drink milk, but would you boil a kid in its own mother’s milk? To do so would be a desecration of sorts, treating sacred things like life and death as mere ingredients.
Well, that’s the ideal presented in Torah, but how often are we faced with that particular dilemma? How does this ideal make its way into my everyday life?
The Oral Tradition tells us how. We’re going to keep meat and milk separate. Every day when I have a glass of milk or eat meat I’ll remember that these things don’t go together and I’ll understand why they don’t go together.
If we keep to these laws during our Trudges, if we take an ideal and make it part of our everyday lives, we elevate the mundane into something far greater than we ever imagined. The Trudge ceases to be a boring walk from place to place and instead becomes a great adventure in its own right!
A simple trip to the grocery store can become the realization of a great ideal. And choosing to order that burger without cheese can become an act of holiness.