Popeyes and Priorities

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Non-kosher restaurants aren’t usually my “beat” but the world is losing its collective mind over a chicken sandwich and I think we should talk about it.

First, some background. In August, Popeyes (no apostrophe; a fast-food chain) debuted a fried chicken sandwich, which created a frenzy. Customers tore through a two-month supply of the sandwich in two weeks, with the result that it abruptly disappeared. On November 3, Popeyes reintroduced the sandwich, assuring their customers that this time they were ready. I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would happen next:

This list isn’t even exhaustive. I pared it down from a lot of options!

Now, I enjoy a good sandwich as much as the next person but something in people’s priorities here is all messed up. And priorities are an important thing to have straight. This is a message we see many times throughout the Torah. For example, the Tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe requested land in Transjordan where they might build “corrals for our sheep and cities for our children” (Numbers 32:16). When Moshe approved their request, he specified that they had permission to build “cities for your children and corrals for your sheep” (ibid., v. 24). Rashi on verse 16 cites the Midrash Tanchuma that the Tribes’ priorities were a little out of whack in that they put their property before their children. When Moshe gave them permission, he also gave them a little musar: “You can build these things but your children have to come before your property.”

That spiritual matters should take priority over physical matters is fairly self-evident. The Torah tells us, “Behold, I set before you today life and good, and death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). Moshe goes on to explain that to follow God and His mitzvos leads to life, while the opposite approach leads to destruction. Verse 19 implores us to “choose life” (as did the T-shirts worn by Wham! in the video for their 1984 hit, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go).

We see the primacy of spirituality over material concerns from the incident recorded in Avos 6:9: Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma was approached by a man who offered him a million gold dinar plus precious gems and pearls to come live in his town. Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma responded that even if he were offered all the silver, gold, jewels and pearls in the world, he would never live anywhere except a place of Torah. This is because, when a person leaves this world, neither precious metals nor gems will accompany him, but Torah and good deeds will as per Proverbs 6:22, “When you walk, it will lead you (i.e., in this world); when you lie down, it will watch over you (i.e., in the grave); when you wake up, it will be your conversation (i.e., in the Next World).”

It might surprise some to learn that there are also priorities within spiritual matters. In Exodus 35:2, God cautioned us not to build the Mishkan on Shabbos. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik – the Beis HaLevi – explained that just as some physical things are necessities and others are luxuries, the same is true of spiritual matters. In other words, some mitzvos are basic needs, while others are not essential for our continuity. The Temple is certainly important but we’ve been without korbanos for 2,000 years; Shabbos, on the other hand, is indispensable. (As the poet Ahad Ha’am is quoted as saying, “More than the Jew has kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jew.”) When someone chooses to drive to shul on Shabbos, or to eat on Yom Kippur so they’ll have strength to daven, they’re confusing the desirable with the indispensable.

Losing track of what’s important is hazardous because once one’s priority-meter is broken, things tend to go haywire. Our Biblical exemplar for this danger is King Saul, who famously allowed King Agag of Amalek to live instead of executing him as God had commanded; this misplaced act of mercy led to the near-destruction of the Jewish people. In a subsequent incident, Saul ordered the destruction of the city of Nov simply because he suspected they had aided David against him. Chazal observe that those who act with misplaced kindness (as Saul did with Agag) will ultimately act with misplaced cruelty (as he did with Nov).

Which brings us back to chicken sandwiches. Food is important. It keeps us alive. It gives us strength to do our jobs and to serve God. It provides an opportunity to bond with our families and friends. It’s meant to be enjoyed.

But there’s a difference between the necessary and the desirable. If I can’t have a chicken sandwich today because the lines are stupid long, I’ll just have to come back tomorrow or next week. It’s not a reason to commit vehicular assault, start a race riot or, you know, stab a guy to death.

It’s important to have priorities. If we lose track of what they are, all our values can collapse like a house of cards. Chicken sandwiches are nice but if they’re not readily available, take another look at the menu and choose life.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.