Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Sh’mini II

It is hard to be creative, having to write about the same portion two weeks in a row; especially when that means three or four different sermonic ideas on the same text. Last week, we read Parashat Shemini. We are doing it again this week. We are in the midst of a holiday based calendar correction which warrants this rarely needed repetition. So, there are two weeks of Kosher, two weeks of Nadav and Avihu and alien fire, and two weeks of finishing the anointment of priests. UGH!

I met with a Bat Mitzvah student yesterday. I tried explaining why we read the same words over and over again every year. The Torah does not change, but what we see in it changes. She asked why that happened, and I was able to respond that we have new experiences to bring to the study of text each year. I asked if she still thought her favorite 5 year old heroes were the best things on earth. She looked at me and laughed, “Of course not!” She nodded that she understood. It was in that moment that I realized that even while I teach the need to revisit the text with new eyes each time we read it; I am not always as good about doing this. I sometimes get stuck in having found some really neat (often off beat) moral in text, and it becomes my single take away from the text for years to come.

I do not keep a ritual level of kashrut. I don’t eat pork, and while I admit to tasting my wife’s shrimp on occasion, I do not eat shell fish. I have always stayed away from these foods because in times of attacks on Jews, those who weren’t killed were forced to do things that were demeaning and degrading. I have read many stories where these actions including making Jews eat things that (if strictly kosher) they would never eat. Please note that I am sure that Freud would have argued that of all the things I could have picked, the obsession with food says something about my inner longing to have been a Jewish mother.

I committed to rethinking the issue, if only for the exercise of being intentional in my study. So, I reread the rules of kashrut. Ok. I still refuse to believe that God cares what we eat. IF God cares about our eating meat, I cannot see it making sense that it’s okay to slaughter some defenseless animals and not others. Perhaps we should not be eating any meat at all, but I am faithfully sure that if God is personally interactive, then God cares a lot more about the “kosher” that comes out of our mouths than about what goes in. I took a look at the requirements that Torah gives us that helps us determine which animals are fit and those which are not. This is not really new to me, for I have always believed that the pig is a symbol of deception. An animal has to have a cloven hoof and chew its cud. The pig is the ONLY animal that looks kosher, but is not because of its internal structure. I often teach this as a way of helping our children understand human nature. Often people are seen doing the right things or who seem to have “it” all together. A book cannot be judged by its cover.

I decided to look at the fish. A fish has to have fins and scales. Shellfish are out, as are many fish species. Complicating the matter are those who have scales when young, but who lose them as they age (sturgeon and swordfish). I was always willing to accept that sometimes the sole answer for rules one does not understand is the need to know that we are disciplined enough to make decisions. We often tell our children to do something even if they don’t understand why. They will grow from the experience. This, however, has always felt like a copout answer. So, I had to think about the purpose of fins and scales. Fins help propel fish. The speed at which it works is less important than that it works … and that it allows them to move in so many different directions turning in every angle their spine allows. Fish do not stagnate. They do not get stuck … unless caught. Shell fish are not nearly as mobile. The scales on a fish protect the fish’s physical integrity. Scales provide a fish with the security to move without fear of injury or damage.

My faith works the same way. If I stagnate, or if I put limitations on my ability to move freely in faith, then it becomes more superstition than faith. Faith has to be rooted in the freedom to experience life. At the same time, I am grounded in core beliefs that protect me; the scales represent the soul’s integrity.

Again, I find that I struggle to believe that this is a literal mandate about what to eat or not, but I absolutely believe that Torah was never intended to be read literally. Using the metaphor of physical sustenance (food for the body), Torah calls on us to wrestle with sustaining our spirit. If we get stuck we lose vision and insight; we have to keep moving in our faith and study. If we lose sight of our core values we wander aimlessly. If we lose a sense of being grounded, we also have no ability to have an epiphany that might help us grow or evolve our sense of truth as we garner more experience and more data from living more days. Perhaps next year, I will work on why the bird’s opposable talon makes a huge difference … or maybe it simply teaches us that firmer grips and greater stability help us make more sense of the world. For me, I marvel in how even the seeming minutia offers profound opportunities for learning. Nothing has to be devoid of spiritual value. Take some time and look past the things you think you know. You never know how cool an epiphany can be.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Marc A. Kline