Commentary for Re’eh

25 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the well-known commandment “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21).” This is the third instance of this commandment in the Torah. It is stated first in Ex. 23:19 and again in Ex. 34:26, and in all three locations, it is the finial clause of the verse. In both appearances in Exodus, it is proceeded by the commandment “the choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God;” a mitzvah known as bikkurim, meaning first-fruits. In our parshah, though, “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is proceeded by a different commandment: the mitzvah of a neveilah (the carcass of a kosher animal that died a natural death). “Do not eat a neveilah; give it to the stranger that is within your community to eat, or sell it to a foreign gentile, for you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God.”

 

These two mitzvahs are startlingly different. Bikkurim is a positive commandment (“you shall bring”) while neveilah is a negative one “you shall not eat a neveilah”). Bikkurim are only given from produce grown in Israel while the laws of a neveilah apply everywhere. Bikkurim are given only from the seven species, while a neveilah refers to any kosher animal that died a natural death. Giving bikkurim is mandatory, but picking up a neveilah is optional. Bikkurim may be touched only by someone in a state of ritual purity or else they will become impure and need to be replaced, while the simple act of picking up a neveilah makes one ritually impure. Bikkurim may only be eaten by a priest in a state of ritual purity, while a neveilah may not be eaten by any Jew. The act of giving bikkurim is accompanied by ritual actions (elaborated on in Deut. 26: 1-11) and much festive pomp and circumstance (as described in the Mishnah of Bikkurim) was later added in, there is no ritual action present at all in either picking up a neveilah or giving or selling it to a non-Jew. In general, bikkurim are viewed as something we are happy to have and happier to consecrate for holy purposes, while a neveilah is something undesirable which one would only ever pick up for the purposes of getting rid of it. They are two very different mitzvoth, but they both precede the same commandment to not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

 

These two attitudes, one of extreme positivity and one of extreme negativity, are two ends of a spectrum on which we approach our religious practice. In Pirkei Avot 4:2, Ben Azzai teaches that “one mitzvah will bring another mitzvah and one transgression will bring another transgression.” If we find ourselves in an atmosphere where Jewish values and observances are encouraged, whether it is by our community around us or from our own personal outlook, sticking to Jewish values and observances is easier for us and almost any mitzvah is within our grasp. When we are in an atmosphere where Jewish values and observances are discouraged, either by those around us or by our own outlook, then performing the same mitzvah, no matter how simple, becomes much more difficult. For this reason, between the commandment of “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” and the negative mitzvah of a neveilah, the Torah contains the phrase “for you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God.” When we are in the midst of a cloud of negativity, we often need that extra positive oomph to break through it, and the Torah provides it by reminding us of our special relationship with God.

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