D’var Torah: Parshat Re’eh – Why Not Cook a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk?

There is a joke that I have heard many times. God is giving the laws to Moshe and says, “You shall not boil a kid (calf or goat) in its mother’s milk.” Moshe responds, “Lord, I think I comprehend what you are saying. You are saying that we cannot eat cheeseburgers.” God replies, “No, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Moshe responds again, “Powerful God, I am nothing, but I think I understand. You mean that we should wait at least three hours after eating meat to eat dairy products.” God testily retorts, “NO, DON’T BOIL A KID IN ITS MOTHER’S MILK!” Moshe tries again, “I am but dust and ashes but I think I get it. What you are saying is that we should have two sets of dishes. One set for meat and one for dairy. If we by accident put meat on a dairy dish we should bury that dish and not use it.” God says, “Oh, just do whatever the hell you want.”

Jewish law is interesting. The rabbis took many statements from the Torah like the one above and fashioned whole systems of laws – like kashrut (dietary laws). Yet, just two weeks ago, we read that we should not add to or detract from the laws of the Torah. What gives? The rabbis tried to develop Judaism to address the issues of their times while also remaining faithful to the Torah, which often presented some moral quandaries. Should we just follow the letter of the law or should we try to understand what the spirit of the law says and expand upon it?

Why is there a prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk? The simplest answer is that the local non-Jews in the area considered that a delicacy. By prohibiting that, the rabbis were trying to create laws to stop assimilation. If you strictly follow the dietary laws of Judaism, they do function as a way to make us different and make it more difficult for us to interact socially with the broader world.

The rabbis also searched deeper than this. I’m not sure whether cows have feelings. As a child growing up in Wyoming, I had a few run-ins with cattle that made me suspect they don’t! However, the idea that you don’t taunt the mother cow by cooking its kid in its milk teaches us to be sensitive. Additionally, the broader concept in Judaism is to take our basic instincts and raise them to a higher standard. That is why we are constantly told “to be holy.” As we learned last week, we should eat and be satisfied. However, having limits on what we can eat, reciting blessings, being grateful for what we have, and being aware of our impact on the world around us are all things we should think about while we are filling our bellies.

Blessing our food, saying Birkat Hamazon and composting are some of the ways we try at camp to honor both the spirit and letter of the law and foster appreciation for what we have. When your children come home in a couple of weeks, many of them may want to say blessings or to sing Birkat Hamazon (especially on Shabbat). We hope you will encourage and join them. Shabbat Shalom!

Categories: Director, Dvar Torah