Sh'mini - weekly Torah portion

Kashrut is certainly a tough cookie. In the last chapter of Shmini, the portion we read on this Shabbat, we recite, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘These are the creatures which you may eat”. It is followed by very detailed descriptions on how to determine what creatures are Kosher and which are not. For example, we may eat animals that “divides a hoof, thus making split hoofs, and chews the cud”. There are others which may not be consumed, for example, “the camel, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof” and also “the pig, for though it divides the hoof, thus making a split hoof, it does not chew cud”. There are also laws for creatures that live in the waters. One may eat “all that have fins and scales” which may be found “in the water, in the seas or in the rivers”. It also continues with birds and even insects such as “the cricket in its kinds, and the grasshopper in its kinds”.

We can be quite truthful to ourselves and admit that these seem to be quite arbitrary instructions. Two reasons are given to these laws, the first, “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth.” The second reason that immediately follows is: “For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy." So it is once for us to remember our covenant with God and the other is to remember where we came from. We had to be lifted up, make an Aliyah. Rising from such a low point that it required an extraordinary force to pull us out of it. It was not just to take us out but also to bring us to higher and better place. An exit from Egypt that would result in a decay is not holy, has no meaning and lacks any value.

These laws of Kashrut emphasis that they are there for the purpose of making “a distinction between the impure and the pure, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten.” So there are two goals here, one is direct, providing clear instructions of what may and what may not be consumed by the Israelites. The main goal, however, is to make us continuously conscious that there are things which are pure, which are just, and there are things which are impure, and unjust. This is why these laws are equally important to those who consume meat as part of their daily dietary and those who do not, because it is not only about what we consume but it is all about us remembering and never forgetting that we need to be able to always make a distinction between good and bad.

The connection brought forth between the pure and impure and the act of the exodus from Egypt reminds us over and over again where we came from, how much we have suffered in slavery in Egypt, how bad it is to live as slaves, people who have no rights and protection. Because it is so easy to forget all of this when we live having our freedom and our rights protected, it is important to be reminded day in and day out of the misery caused to people of misfortune. This way, through the simple act of daily observance of the laws of Kashrut it is hoped that we have a flashback to our days in Egypt and that we refrain from inflicting the same kind of suffering on others. Remembering that it is not only about the tactical strict observance of the particular food that we consume but also the greater morality that stands behind it. That we have a moral obligation towards ourselves, and also to the foreigners who live among us.

We were thrilled early this week for a few hours when we heard the Israeli prime minister speak about the issue of refugees and the solution reached with the UN agency for such matters. An arrangement that would take care over time of the rights of over thirty thousand people who enter Israel, some as asylum seekers, others as people looking for better jobs, and some who simply entered illegally and decided to stay on. Our Movement’s stand on the issue was that the State of Israel should have addressed in a moral manner the problem that was laid before it. A stand which recognizes the right of the State to determine who may enter its gates but also has the moral core to allow asylum seekers to plead their case before a body willing to listen in light of the special character of the State of Israel, that we expect and demand to be a Light to the Nations, but also from the need to provide the disenfranchised populations of various communities the generous support that they need. What we believed that should a moral core of the prime minister vanished within a few hours.

We will have to continue this fight. We may not make a mistake here as with this prime minister the pure and impure have lost meaning, they got intertwined and inseparable. He got confused on the issue of the Kotel, he got mixed up on the issue of the Shabbat, he is mistaken on the issue of the refugees, and he brought it to an absurd with his unfounded accusations of the New Israel Fund. This has no justification whatsoever. He attempts to speak the words of justice but lifts the torch of hate and despair. This struggle may not be short or easy but being based on foundations of morality and justice it will prevail because ultimately we do know the “distinction between the impure and the pure”.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 5 April 2018, 20 Nissan, 5778

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