During the four decades that Bnei Yisrael were in the midbar, the only animal meat they were permitted to eat was that of korbanos. However, as we learn in this week’s parashah, since after entering Eretz Yisrael many would be living a considerable distance from the Mishkan (later, from the Beis Hamikdash), this restriction was lifted at that time.
The Sifsei Kohen, whose rebbi was a close talmid of the Arizal, teaches that though the Torah clearly permits the consumption of meat, that doesn’t mean that animal meat should be eaten daily by healthy people.
Until the time of Noach, he points out, humans were prohibited from consuming meat. It was only after the mabbul that mankind was permitted to slaughter and consume kosher birds and animals. Avraham Avinu served his guests — who were actually angels — the tongue of a calf, but he didn’t join their repast; he “stood over them” under the tree.
When Yitzchak Avinu desired to eat meat, he didn’t want to slaughter of his own, and asked Esav to prepare it. Sending Yaakov instead, Rivka Imeinu gave him goats to slaughter for his father’s meal, for Yitzchak wouldn’t have eaten the fattier [and hence tastier] meat of the sheep. Yaakov Avinu certainly didn’t eat animal meat during the twenty years he lived in the home of Lavan.
The Shevatim didn’t eat meat either. After they sold Yosef, the Torah informs us that they sat down to “eat bread.”
It is unlikely that Yosef Hatzaddik ate animal meat in Egypt, a land that worshipped cattle as idols. Though the Torah tells us that Yosef instructed that livestock be “slaughtered” for the meal he served his brothers, the Sifsei Kohen says that this actually refers to fowl.
The regular consumption of animal meat, and other types of overly-luxurious conduct, can have a negative impact on one’s avodas Hashem. The Torah warns us in Parashas Haazinu, “Vayishman Yeshurun vayiv’at,” when one becomes “fat” with material luxuries it leads to arrogance, and then rebellion against Hashem.
Therefore, the Sifsei Kohen states, animal meat is permitted only on Shabbosos, Yamim Tovim, and at a seudas mitzvah, or for the ill or weak who need it to build up their strength.
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To the unlearned eye it might appear that the activities of a Jew can be neatly divided between the spiritual — davening, learning Torah and performing mitzvos — and the physical — eating, drinking, and sleeping.
Yet sefarim teach us that, in essence, physical activities have a spiritual purpose and, when done correctly they are pivotal components of our avodas Hashem.
The Arizal teaches that the reason we eat meat is to elevate and rectify the sparks of holiness within this food.
The Chasam Sofer interprets the verse in our parashah, “You may eat meat according to every desire of your soul,” as referring to those who eat with these loftiest of intentions. In fact, the reason that tzaddikim sense a desire to eat meat is only for this purpose.
For he who eats for any other reason doesn’t fill the imperative of “every desire of your soul.” Hence he may enjoy the food, but he is never really satisfied. There is often a downside: either the amount of money that was spent on it, or the time that was lost in the process.
Yet when a pious Jew is filled with a desire to eat meat in order to elevate sparks of holiness in the food, he has no regrets, for he knows that he is obeying the will of Hashem.
However, there is a chance that family members who are on a lesser spiritual level will join this pious Jew in his repast. Sensing that the others present are eating to fill their physical desires and don’t have in mind avodas Hashem, he might be tempted to drive them away from the table.
Therefore, in the very next passuk we are enjoined, “the unclean and the clean alike may eat of them,” to teach us not to expel others, for as the passuk later states, “Be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul…” Chazal teach us that embarrassing a fellow Jew is tantamount to shedding his blood; so the Torah warns that even when we come in contact with those who are spiritually on a weaker level than us, we should take great care not to hurt their feelings.