Parshas Shemini: Lessons From The Birds

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shemini, we read of permitted and forbidden animals – those which we may consume, and those which we may not consume.  The Torah sums up these directives by instructing us to be holy: וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי – You are to sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am holy (Vayikra 11:44 and see v.45 as well).

We must sanctify and hallow ourselves, as a holy nation to G-d, for just as G-d is Holy, so too we must be holy.  So far reaching are the mitzvos of the Torah, that even what we eat, when we eat, how we eat, where we eat, and with whom we eat are all commanded to us (in various places in the Torah). 

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “It is interesting to note that there is only one verse in the Torah that mentions prayer (Devarim 11:13 with Rashi/Taanis 2a), but there are many chapters that deal with dietary laws.  It is easier for man to pray than to withdraw from food he desires.  Man is ready to serve G-d spiritually, but resents an interference with his eating habits, or with the manner in which he gratifies his physical or carnal needs.

“Modern man is willing to worship G-d and participate in cultic performances and ceremonials.  Modern man does not object to singing hymns or to visiting the sanctuary, and never complains about the cost of cultic performance.  At the same time, he resents being told that there are laws which guide him concerning behavior not of the spirit, but of his body.  The Torah is of the opinion, however, that it is impossible to hallow and inspire the spirit without disciplining the body.

“These mitzvos belong to the category of discipline of the body and its sanctification.  What is forbidden here is overindulgence in satisfying human corporeal needs and drives.  Judaism does not reject the body.  The body is a part of man and so is the spirit, the soul.  But the body should not be that of a savage; it should be a disciplined body, one capable of refraining and retreating from certain actions that promise much corporeal pleasure.  The body must be sanctified and elevated.

“We have existed for almost two thousand years without a sanctuary, and the absence of its service has not affected the integrity of our people.  If a Jewish community would reject kashrus, however, it would become assimilated in a few generations” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Vayikra, p.74-75).

The lessons of forbidden and permitted foods are many, and each comes to teach us something else, ensuring our physical and spiritual survival through the ages. 

In the list of birds forbidden for consumption is the חֲסִידָה (chasidah) (11:19).  About the chasidah, Rashi comments: This is the white dayah, לָמָּה נִקְרָא שְׁמָהּ חֲסִידָה? שֶׁעוֹשָֹׁה חֲסִידוּת עִם חַבְרוֹתֶיהָ בִּמְזוֹנוֹת – And why is her name/why is she called Chasidah (from the root word חסד – kindness)?  Because she does kindness with her friends with food (Rashi, ibid).

What is wrong with this bird?  She performs chessed, acts of kindness, but only with her kind – to the exclusion of others who are not like her.  This, the Torah tells us, is behavior not sanctioned by the Torah.  For chessed is one of the pillars that holds up the world (Avos 1:2), and must be done to one and all. 

R’ Yisrael Meir Lau shlita, “Kindness is the purpose of creation and the basis of its construction.  Our Sages teach that ‘giving charity is greater than all sacrifices’ (Succah 49b), and that ‘kindness that we show each other is more beloved to G-d than the thousand burnt offerings of Shlomo’ (Yalkut Shimoni)…

“If a person does not perform deeds of kindness, he removes the sole justification for his existence.  In the two instances in the Torah where total destruction at the hand of heaven was decreed – the Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Amorah – the reason was the deterioration of kindness.  ‘The judgement against the generation of the flood was only sealed when they engaged in theft’ (Sanhedrin 108a).  Similarly, the inhabitants of Sodom and Amorah were condemned only after the outcry of those whom they had tormented rose to the heavens.

“Acts of kindness may be expressed in countless ways: financial aid, visiting the sick, helping people get married, attending a funeral, comforting mourners, pidyon she’vu’yim (redeeming captives), hachnasas orchim (hosting guests), giving helpful advice, offering words of encouragement, or simply smiling at others…

“Because the avenues of kindness are so numerous, the Torah simply mentions the general obligation to treat others with a generous spirit and an open hand, summing up the matter in the command to ‘love for your fellow what you love for yourself’ (Vayikra 19:18).  Treat someone else with no less solicitude than you would desire for yourself.  Help him, ease his burden, bring a ray of happiness into his life.  It is no wonder that R’ Akiva stated hu klal gadol baTorah – it is a great principle of Torah (ibid with Rashi), for an entire structure of halachos and caring for others is contained within its few words. 

“In order to perform this mitzvah properly, a person must perfect his character.  There can be no genuine kindness where jealousy rages, hatred festers, and the ego admires itself.  These must be replaced with generosity, love and empathy.

“Thus, Rambam refers to the performance of kind deeds as ‘positive traits,’ for a person can perform kind deeds properly only if he has worked assiduously on his character, bringing to that work the same care that a jeweler brings to cutting a stone” (R’ Lau on Avos, Artscroll, p.25).

Let us ensure that the chessed we do for others is non-judgmental, accepting, and loving for all, for unlike the chassidah, our acts of kindness hold up the world.  Let us recognize that all the laws of the Torah are meant to refine our personalities and perfect our characters, as we strive every day to become better people, and better Jews, holy in all that we do.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


1 Comment
  • Devorah
    Posted at 07:22h, 17 April

    Thanks for sharing. Good shabbos