Parshas Shemini: Living Higher

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shemini, we are commanded regarding ma’achalos mutaros and ma’achalos asuros – permitted and forbidden foodstuffs.  And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, to say to them: דַּבְּרוּ אֶלבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר: זֹאת הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכְלוּ, מִכָּלהַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר עַלהָאָרֶץ, speak to the Children of Israel saying: These are the life forms that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the earth (Vayikra 11:1-2).

Any animal that has a completely split hoof and brings up its cud, this we may eat (v.3).  As for fish, those that have fins and scales in the water, in the seas, and in the streams, those we may eat (v.9).  In regard to birds, the Torah lists the specific birds that are forbidden to us (v.13-19).

As the chapter on forbidden and permitted closes, the pasuk says: כִּי אֲנִי ההַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לאלקים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי, For I am Hashem, Who brings you up from the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you; you shall be holy for I am holy (v.45).  

Rashi (ibid) teaches: On the condition that you accept My commandments, I brought you up (from the land of Egypt).  Another explanation is: Had I not brought Israel out of Egypt for any reason other than that they do not make themselves impure through creeping things as do the other nations, it would have been sufficient cause for them to have been redeemed, and abstaining (from forbidden foods) is an elevation for them, hence the verse uses the term הַמַּעֲלֶה, Who brings you up.

To the nations of the world, the laws of Kashrus – one of the foundations and tenets of our faith – seem outdated, archaic and senseless.  Should not man be master over himself, skeptics wonder?  Does it really matter if the fish has fins and scales or only one, or neither?  Can one not fill the desires of ones physical self as he wishes, without the laws of Torah and halacha guiding ones every move?  

And to these challenges and more, we know with certainty that it is these very laws that enlighten, ennoble and elevate us from mere physical beings to physical-spiritual beings living to fulfill the will of G-d.  

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski z’l writes, “Yiddishkeit stresses the importance of mesiras nefesh.  This term is often understood to mean sacrificing one’s life for Hashem.  That is the extreme of mesiras nefesh, which has a broad spectrum.  Anytime a person denies himself a personal desire for the sake of avodas Hashem, that is mesiras nefesh… Whenever one sets aside one’s will and desire in order to do something for someone else, that constitutes mesiras nefesh” (Growing Up, p.26-27).  

Hence, when we live our lives according to the laws of kashrus, especially at times when it may perhaps be difficult for us, that is an act of mesiras nefesh that elevates us to a higher realm and brings us closer to G-d.  Whether we understand why certain animals are permitted and others are forbidden is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that we live according to the word of G-d.  

On living a meaningful and committed Jewish life, one that is lived with the ever-present awareness that we are ‘lifnei Hashem,’ before G-d, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z’l teaches, “Someone learns that you are an Observant Jew, and he clucks his tongue in sympathy, feeling genuinely sorry for you, and responds in a half-admiring and half-pitying tone: ‘You observe the Sabbath, with all its restrictions?  You cannot smoke or travel or write?’  And we explain: Sabbath is for us not a day of gloom and restriction, but one of oneg, unadulterated joy, when an ordinary observant Jew can experience a neshama yeseira, the ‘additional soul’ that comes from a day of pure rest and re-creation, when we feel liberated from the tyranny of all the pettiness that surrounds us during the week.  

“Or someone discovers that you believe in and practice the laws of family purity.  And again the incredulous reaction, with a mixture of pity and admiration: ‘You really practice these ascetic regulations denying your basic drives?’  And we patiently explain: No, it is not asceticism, but a healthy and vital self-discipline, which ennobles the animal within us and purifies and sublimates it, and makes marriage a dream, not a nightmare.  

“So, too, we observe kashrut and we expect no awards and want no sympathy for it.  It simply is part of our life of kedusha, of holiness, the practical program of Jewish holiness and differentness.  And the very fact of observance of kashrut away from home, with all the minor inconveniences it entails, by itself gives us the feeling of being at home everywhere!

“Indeed in every area of life, the outsider sees only size and number rather than content and quality, the conventional rather than the moral, the fashionable rather than that which is indeed dignified, opinions rather than ideas.  Such a person beholds a synagogue and can see only the membership and budget and activities and aesthetics.  But that individual lacks that which the insider knowns in the depths of his being: the heights of joy, the touch of mystery and grandeur, the whisper of the echo of the sound of the voice of G-d.  Within the Sanctuary, we are welling up with hope and courage.

“For ‘lifnei Hashem’ means that in this society which suffers such solitude we do not experience that oppressive loneliness, for even if others abandon and neglect us, we know that G-d is with us… It means that we have a function in the Divine economy and a purpose of life.  This indeed is the secret and reward of a genuine Jewish life!” (Derashot Ledorot, Leviticus, p.37-38).  

May our shemiras ha’mitzvos – from Shabbos, to family purity, to the foods that we eat and those that we refrain from eating – bring us ever closer to G-d, with the awareness that in everything we do and all that we say, we are always lifnei Hashem – before the Almighty.  בְּכָלדְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ; וְהוּא, יְיַשֵּׁר אֹרְחֹתֶיךָin all your ways you shall know Him, and He will straighten your paths (Mishlei 3:6).

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,

Michal

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