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Higher Desires (Shoftim)

The following essay explores the concept of “cravings” as it appears in this week’s Parshah, Shoftim, and last week’s Parshah, Re’eh. For the 2015 article on Parshat Shoftim, “A Tale of Two Cities,” please click here. For the 2014 article on Parshat Shoftim, “Samuel and the Separation of Powers,” please click here.

Near the middle of this week’s Parshah, the Torah outlines the position that the Kohanim and Levi’im are to occupy within broader Israelite society (Deut. 18:1-8):

The Levitic kohanim, the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; the Lord’s fire offerings and His inheritance they shall eat. But he shall have no inheritance among his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as He spoke to him. And this shall be the kohanim’s due from the people, from those who perform a slaughter, be it an ox or a sheep, he shall give the kohen the foreleg, the jaws, and the maw. The first of your grain, your wine, and your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. For the Lord, your God, has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand and serve in the name of the Lord, he and his sons, all the days. And if a Levite comes from one of your cities out of all Israel where he sojourns, he may come with all that his soul desires / craves [בכל אות נפשו], to the place the Lord will choose, and he may serve in the name of the Lord, his God, just like all his Levite brothers, who stand there before the Lord. They shall eat equal portions, except what was sold by the forefathers.

Notice the curious phrase used to describe the Levi’s resolve to minister in Yerushalayim: “בכל אות נפשו:” with all that his soul desires / craves. Why does the Torah invoke the vocabulary of תאוה, “craving,” to refer to a religious ambition? This language, usually reserved for carnal and appetitive lusts, hardly seems appropriate when applied to matters of the spirit!

In fact, the only other context in the entire Torah in which that particular phrase—בכל אות נפש—crops up is in last week’s Parshah, Re’eh. And, indeed, those who studied that Parshah carefully may have observed that it takes unique interest with issues of תאוה, “cravings.”[1] These issues are highlighted in two passages specifically: Deut. 12:5-21, concerning the consumption of meat, and Deut. 14:22-29, concerning the bringing of tithes:

Deut. 12:5-21: The Consumption of Meat

Flock of sheep, New Zealand, PacificOnly to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there. And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep. And there you shall eat before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your God, has blessed you. You shall not do as all the things that we do here this day, every man [doing] what he deems fit. For you have not yet come to the resting place or to the inheritance, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and He will give you rest from all your enemies surrounding you, and you will dwell securely. And it will be, that the place the Lord, your God, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God you and your sons and your daughters and your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite who is within your cities, for he has no portion or inheritance with you. Beware, lest you offer up your burnt offerings any place you see. But only in the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes; there you shall offer up your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. However, in every desire of your soul (בכל אות נפשך) you may slaughter and eat meat in all your cities, according to the blessing of the Lord, your God, which He gave you; the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the deer, and as of the gazelle. However, you shall not eat the blood; you shall spill it on the ground like water. You may not eat within your cities the tithe of your grain, or of your wine, or of your oil, or the firstborn of your cattle or of your sheep, or any of your vows that you will vow, or your donations, or the separation by your hand. But you shall eat them before the Lord, your God, in the place the Lord, your God, will choose you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, and the Levite who is in your cities, and you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God, in all your endeavors. Beware, lest you forsake the Levite all your days upon your land. When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, “I will eat meat,” because your soul desires (תאוה נפשך) to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul (בכל אות נפשך). If the place the Lord, your God, chooses to put His Name there, will be distant from you, you may slaughter of your cattle and of your sheep, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat in your cities, according to every desire of your soul (בכל אות נפשך). But as the deer and the gazelle are eaten, so may you eat them; the unclean and the clean alike may eat of them.

Deut. 14:22-29: The Bringing of Tithes

You shall tithe all the seed crop that the field gives forth, year by year. And you shall eat before the Lord, your God, in the place He chooses to establish His Name therein, the tithes of your grain, your wine, and your oil, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep, so that you may learn to fear the Lord, your God, all the days. And if the way be too long for you, that you are unable to carry it, for the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to establish His Name therein, is too far from you, for the Lord, your God, will bless you Then you shall turn it into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and you shall go to the place the Lord, your God, will choose. And you shall turn that money into whatever your soul desires (בכל אשר תאוה נפשך); cattle, sheep, new wine or old wine, or whatever your soul requests,[2] and you shall eat there before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. And [as for] the Levite who is in your cities you shall not forsake him, for he has neither portion nor inheritance with you. At the end of three years, you shall take out all the tithe of your crop in that year and place it in your cities. And the Levite because he has no portion or inheritance with you and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are in your cities, will come and eat and be satisfied; so that the Lord, your God, will bless you in all the work of your hand that you will do.

These two passages share several common motifs, most of which also appear in the passage cited from our Parshah as well. Both concern a sacralised edible (meat, tithes) whose consumption is supposed to occur only “before Hashem—לפני ה’” (Deut. 12:7, 12, 18; 14:23, 26) in the “place that Hashem will choose = המקום אשר יבחר ה’” (Deut. 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 21; 14:23-25). Both recognize, however, that there will be individuals for whom “this place is too far from you = כי ירחק ממך המקום” (Deut. 12:21, 14:24). Both further acknowledge that this situation is liable to give rise to “cravings=תאוה” (see above for references), and thus, both provide a more convenient method for consuming the edibles in question. Finally, both warn Bnei Yisrael against “abandoning the Levi = ע.ז.ב את הלוי” (Deut. 12:19, 14:27), who “has no portion or inheritance with you=אין לו חלק ונחלה עמך/אתכם” (Deut. 12:12; 14:27-29). It is this last charge—the charge to care for the Levi and share Hashem’s bounty with him—whose details are developed in the passage from our Parshah, Shoftim.

Though separated from each other by an assortment of apparently unrelated laws concerning, among other matters, individual and collective idolatry, false prophecy, pagan mourning rites, kosher and non-kosher animals, judicial procedure, and the establishment of a monarchy, the thematic and linguistic similarities between these two passages, in Re’eh, and our passage, in Shoftim, strongly suggest that they comprise a single literary unit. We might even speculate that this is how they were originally presented to Bnei Yisrael when Moshe delivered them orally.[3] What is clear, at any rate, is that they ought to be analyzed in juxtaposition to one another.

When we do that, we discover that beneath their similarities lie a series of noteworthy differences. Consider:

  • In Re’eh, wealth severs the connection between Bnei Yisrael and Yerushalayim, i.e. “the place that Hashem will choose:” Bnei Yisrael drift towards the country’s periphery in search of material bounty and wind up receiving special exemptions or relaxations of their religious obligations in light of these priorities. In Shoftim, on the other hand, the Levi migrates out of “one of your cities” (Deut. 18:6) and chooses instead to establish his home “before Hashem” (Deut. 18:5), in “the place that Hashem will choose” (Deut. 18:6).
  • Parshat Re’eh grants Bnei Yisrael permission to consume certain profane forms of slaughtered meat [ז.ב.ח], and grain and wine [דגן ותירש], in the comfort of their own homes (Deut. 12:15, 14:23). Only the sacralised forms of these foods sustain the Levi in Parshat Shoftim (Deut. 18:3-4).
  • In Parshat Re’eh, Bnei Yisrael eat [א.כ.ל] meat (Deut. 12:15), cattle, sheep, and old and new wine (Deut. 14:26). In Parshat Shoftim, the only act of eating explicitly ascribed to the Levi is his “eating” of the “fires of the Lord” (Deut. 18:1).
  • The economic prosperity forecast in Parshat Re’eh is to occur when Bnei Yisrael “arrive at the resting place and [territorial] inheritance [נחלה] which the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 12:9). By contrast, both that Parshah and ours stress repeatedly that “the Levi has no [territorial] inheritance among you” (ex. Deut. 12:12). Instead, it is “the Lord’s inheritance” (Deut. 18:1) which he claims in our Parshah.

In both conduct and conviction, the subjects of Parshat Re’eh contrast starkly with those of Parshat Shoftim. And it is only through these contrasts that the passages in either Parshah can be fully understood.

7715698292_84885ae2c2_b.jpgOn its own, Parshat Re’eh reads as one long concession to corporeality. Surely that is what the Torah is doing by so openly calling attention to the very real biological compulsions that we harbor as Homo sapiens, and by then scaling its normative ideals to fit within the bounds of those compulsions. To be mortal is, in large measure, to be material; such is simply reality, and any spiritual framework with which we attempt to adorn human life must accommodate itself to that reality. We deny to our detriment those “cravings” which drive us as humans. Conscience must instead be limited by capacity—such is the apparent message of last week’s Parshah.

But perhaps we are capable of more than we realize. Perhaps it is possible to marshal towards spiritual ends the same energy and zeal that we do in pursuit of their physical counterparts. Perhaps we can heed the needs of our souls with equal alacrity as we do those of our bodies. Perhaps, in fact, that is the radical proposition which our Parshah is putting forth when it very deliberately casts the Levi’s urge to serve Hashem in the same terms used to refer to the meat-eaters and wine-drinkers of last week’s Parshah: בכל אות נפשו—“with all of his cravings.” Where Parshat Re’eh adjusts its ritual standards in deference to the nation’s culinary cravings, Parshat Shoftim holds a mirror to those cravings and sets them against “cravings” of an altogether different sort—cravings not for food and drink, but for divine worship; cravings not for a territorial “inheritance,” but for “the inheritance of the Lord.”

Of course, not everybody is born a Levi. The vast majority of Bnei Yisrael, in fact, belong to those eleven of the twelve tribes whose guiding ethic is ultimately that of Parshat Re’eh, and whose role in a religious society therefore includes the responsibility for managing the institutions which enable that society to flourish materially. This, too, is holy work—and sometimes the demands of that work compel its practitioners to strike necessary and legitimate balances in other areas of their spiritual lives.

Yet even as we exercise the Torah’s license to shape our religious practice around the exigencies of our earthly endeavors, our axiological aspirations must remain uncompromisingly those of the Levi. What excites the Levi is not the pull of material abundance. What stirs him is prayer. What animates him is Torah study. What energizes him are acts of kindness. What he “craves,” in short, is a life of avodat Hashem, dedicating himself to it with every bit of the all-consuming passion which that term implies.

And, in so doing, he reminds us that so, too, can we.[4]

Shabbat shalom!


[1] The emphasis on תאוה in the Parshas of Re’eh and Shoftim may be useful to note in connection with yet another Parshah in Sefer Devarim: Parshat Va’etchanan. In that Parshah, Moshe reviews the Ten Commandments originally received in Sefer Shemot. There are, however, several differences between the text of the Ten Commandments as it appears in Sefer Shemot and the text as it appears in Sefer Devarim. One such difference is that whereas the version of the tenth commandment recorded in Sefer Shemot reads לא תחמד—“do not covet” (Exod. 20:13)—the version recorded in Sefer Devarim also includes the words לא תתאוה—“do not crave/desire” (Deut. 5:17). This insertion of תאוה into the Ten Commandments found in Devarim sets the stage for the slew of references to that concept scheduled for later in the Sefer. It also confirms for us the thematic centrality of תאוה to the Sefer as a whole.

[2] Hebrew: “בכל אשר תשאלך נפשך”—same concept, though different root as that of תאוה.

[3] This suggestion relies upon distinguishing between the oral presentation of Sefer Devarim and the literary presentation thereof. In other words: the order in which Moshe delivered the “speeches” that constitute Sefer Devarim may be different than the order in which Hashem arranged those speeches when dictating to Moshe how the final version of the Sefer was to be canonized. Such a possibility is readily implied by the hermeneutic principle known as אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה, i.e., that “the Torah is achronolgoical”—though we do not apply that principle to Sefer Devarim as intuitively as we do to other Chumashim.

[4] In this vein, it is worth citing the Rambam’s celebrated closing remarks to Sefer Zeraim of his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Shemittah V’Yovel 13:11):

Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do, and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish considerations which trouble people—such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this world, just as He granted to the priests and to the Levites. Thus did David, peace upon him, say, “O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot.”


  1. benyitzhak says:

    Dear Alex, This is part of a wider theme of concessionism; see the Rambam, Guide, 3:32, where he describes the whole Temple service as a result of that motive: Hashem wished to accede to the Jews’ understanding of avodat Hashem as involving sacrifices. I suspect that the Rambam would agree with you, that these concessions are “temporary,” i.e., are not forever, but will eventually pass, as the body will after tehiyyat ha-metim. Whether everyone would agree with this spiritualistic interpretation is not clear to me. Kol tuv, Yaadov

    Yaakov Elman yelman3@aol.com

    • alexmaged says:

      Dear Dr. Elman,
      Thank you very much for sharing this insight!
      Interestingly, the notion of korbanot constituting a sort of concession to the religious conceptions current in the ANE came up in Dr. Eichler’s Biblical Cosmogony course just yesterday. It never occurred to me to connect that idea to the piece on this week’s Parshah the way you have. But what a fascinating connection it is! Here we are discussing meat-consumption as a concession vis-à-vis the “ideal” of centralized sacrifice—yet when we “zoom out” our lens, as it were, we discover that (at least according to some major authorities, the Rambam among them), sacrifice *itself* constitutes a form of religious concession. This quite significantly raises the stakes involved in our Parshah!
      Another interesting piece here is that some view Sefer Devarim, as a whole, as presenting a sort of suboptimal Halachic vision, whose ideals have been pared down to accommodate the arduous realities of entering Eretz Yisrael—i.e. of engaging in agriculture, politics, and nation building generally. I had an interesting conversation about two weeks ago with a relative of mine who teaches in Zilberman’s and has collected over the years dozens of examples of this phenomenon—i.e. examples where differences in the presentation of a Halacha in Devarim vs. its presentation elsewhere in the Torah are purportedly attributable to the “concessionist” nature of Sefer Devarim. I noted to him how fitting it is that perhaps the archetypically “concessionist” mitzvah—that of yefas toar, which Chazal explicitly identify as such—is also found in Sefer Devarim, in next week’s Parshah. (Although, interestingly: in Dr. Leiman’s Devarim class last year, he cited a passage from Rav Amnon Bazak’s Ad Ha-Yom Ha-Zeh, concerning the eating of the bechor as presented in Devarim vs. elsewhere in the Torah, where Rav Bazak actually argues that Devarim represents the ideal…) Much to say on this topic, to be sure.
      Thank you once again for taking the time to share your valuable feedback.
      Looking forward to tonight’s class!

  2. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great essay Alex, I love the way you link the biological to the spiritual through the text. Thank you for putting it together for us. Have a wonderful day!

  3. Shalom says:

    Forgive me for my comment comes from a place that hasn’t paid any attention to Torah learning beyond day dreaming in my grade school classes. My comment seems a bit of a tangent to meat eating and to be honest I don’t fully understand the specific message of the Torah quotes besides we should sacrifice to G-d and the Levis.
    Can one say that the fact that we must provide to the Levis, who do not inherit any land, should be extended to mean that we should donate to all people who cannot “inherit land” and profit from their land in the form of sustaining their livelihood. More generally is it a call to give charity to those who do not have the power to help themselves? People who have disabilities for example and can’t hold down steady work. Do you think it has relevance here or is this more of a topic for a different Torah portion? Or perhaps we only have this obligation for other Jewish people, only our family, and not our enemies. Thoughts?

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