Re’eh – Training in Sensitivity
(Deuteronomy 12:21) “…you may slaughter… as I commanded you.” When eating meat or fowl we must slaughter the animal in the manner which is commanded by the Lord. The Torah does not go into detail here and does not inform us of the actual requirements, leaving that to the oral tradition that was transmitted along with the written Torah.
Psychologists say that the most important question in life is ‘why.’ When we encounter any symptoms, any disharmony or unusual behavior we need to ask why. Healing the symptom is not going to cure the disease; finding a resolution to an argument between irate spouses will not restore a loving atmosphere into the home; and finding a way to stop one’s pathological behavior will not affect emotional balance. There are underlying issues to all problems in life. A high fever can be brought down by a dose of medication but until we address the source of the fever, until we discover what caused the fever we cannot properly provide a cure. Quarrels over minor issues in a relationship indicate a deeper discord and a child acting out should be a red flag that something is not right the child’s life. We need to probe beneath the surface. We need to ask why.
The Torah’s commandments also have underlying reasons. There is a system to the Torah and Ramba”m states that we are obligated to probe ‘to the extent of our intellectual capabilities’ in order the understand the reasons and purpose of the Mitzvot. All the rules and laws in the Torah are expressions of ideas, a cosmic system that manifests in human action. Of course, exploring the reasons for the Mitzvot requires profound humility, an understanding that we can never divine the ultimate motive of G-d and His designs in mandating any particular commandment. But that doesn’t remove from us the responsibility of finding meaning in the performance of Mitzvot. Many commentators have endeavored to deduce reasons for all the Mitzvot, most notably the sefer HaChinuch, written anonymously but widely attributed to Rabbi Aharon Halevi who lived nearly a millennium ago.
In pondering the Mitzvah of Kosher slaughter, our intuition guides us in the direction of humaneness. The details of the Mitzvah, the requirement of an utterly flawless blade, the smooth motions of the hand demanded by the law, the placement of the cut, all these indicate to us that the goal is to minimize pain to the animal. The Torah here appears to proscribe needless causing of pain, regulating the procedure of slaughter at the same time as allowing meat eating in principle.
To understand that and to stop looking further would be shortsighted, however. R’ Uziel Milevsky points out that it is not the animal the Torah is looking out for, it is the person, the meat consumer, the slaughterer. Yes, we don’t want to cause unnecessary pain to the animal. Yes, we do everything we can to minimize the trauma and expedite the death of the animal. But it is not for the animal’s sake, rather it is for our own sake.
We are obligated to be good people, compassionate people. All of our actions influence our thinking. This idea goes back to the Rabbenu B’Chaye who wrote a principle in his great work “The Duties of the Heart:” The heart follows the action. That runs contrary to conventional thinking, which attributes our actions and behavior to our inner attitude. Here we are saying that it is our external behavior which infiltrates our hearts and forms our attitudes and mindsets. In other words, acting with kindness and compassion will influence us to become kind and compassionate people, while acting cruelly will eventually turn us into cruel, unfeeling people.
In taking every care to minimize the animal’s pain we train ourselves to become sensitive to causing pain to others. If the knife had the slightest nick, detectable by the by a faint catch while running the blade on one’s fingertip, the knife is not valid for kosher slaughter and an animal slaughtered by such a knife is rendered non-kosher.
This law is lost on most people today. We outsource all kosher slaughter to large companies, sometimes overseas, which take care of all the processing. The meat is in the supermarket freezers, looking no different from the non-kosher options, except for the emblem of the kosher supervisor stamped onto the label of the kosher meat. This is why the it is so important to study Torah, and why our tradition considers study of Torah its fulfillment. By studying and becoming familiar with these laws, the lessons contained within are not lost on us even if we have never met a cow in our lifetime.