Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
Why do we keep kosher? This week’s portion, Shemini, in discussing the kosher dietary laws, devotes no less than an entire chapter to delineating prohibited foods, such as insects and creeping animals, pigs, rabbits, and so on. We will seek here to identify the Torah’s main reason for prohibiting the consumption of various types of creeping animals.
Over the generations, a great many explanations have been given for the Torah’s laws of Kashrut. Some were based on the word “ונטמטם”, which can either be read as “and you were defiled” or “and your hearts were stupefied”. These explanations seek to demonstrate that these foods defile the soul, but no rational explanation of defilement is offered.
The Torah states: “You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping creature that creeps, and you shall not defile yourselves with them… For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” [Lev. 11:43,45]. This rationale, which links the prohibition of eating creeping creatures with the story of the Exodus, an event we have just commemorated, seems questionable. We’ve grown accustomed to the notion that our departure from Egypt should compel us to empathize with workers and slaves, converts, foreigners, and the like. But what’s the connection between the Exodus and eating bugs?
Some teach that the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was for man to obey Hashem, as expressed in the phrase “release My people, and they shall serve me”, and this dietary prohibition is another commandment we are required to obey. The problem with this explanation is that any one of the 613 commandments could be implied, since the Jewish people are commanded to obey all of them, and there is no special connection between the commandment to refrain from eating prohibited foods and the Exodus from Egypt. We therefore need to choose a different approach.
The story of the Exodus could be understood in various ways. Some would justifiably choose to see it as a story of slaves being released from the yoke of their oppressors. This approach reminds many of us of the civil rights struggle of African Americans in the United States. This is clearly part and parcel of the heart of the story, but it is only one part of it. To a great extent, it belongs to the distant past, and is less relevant to the world we live in today, since most people in today’s world enjoy at least some degree of freedom.
The story of the Exodus could also be viewed as a person’s attempt to rise above our base, material world and infuse some meaning into life. Freedom from slavery isn’t merely when a slave casts off the yoke of foreign servitude. It is also when a person is liberated from his or her own enslavement. In today’s day and age, a person can constantly ponder the question of what to eat at each meal in the coming week, which movie to watch each day, or which vacations to look forward to in the coming year.
However, that person could also reflect on the path life is taking, or the important things left to accomplish for himself or herself, family or society. Or, perhaps, what will be written on his or her epitaph. For that to happen, the person must leave Egypt, or, put more precisely, ascend out of Egypt. This requires rising out of the lowly world we are, at times, consumed with, and entering the more profound domains of our souls. We note that the Torah used the words “I am Hashem, who took you up from the Land of Egypt”, and not “… who took you out of the Land of Egypt”, implying an intent to enhance our quality of life.
With this in mind, we may have discovered a new reason for the prohibition of eating creeping animals. A person is naturally inclined to want to eat anything his or her palate or stomach fancies. The intent of the Exodus is to add a new dimension to our lives. We call this dimension “sanctity”. It is a dimension we can access through the most materialistic part of our existence – the food we eat.
Being holy need not mean becoming ascetics and depriving ourselves of food altogether. Being holy is being a normal person who eats, drinks, and starts a family, but infuses more spiritual planning and thought into family life and eating, instead of merely being physically drawn to anything connected to food.
We do not know the specific reason the Torah commands that we refrain from eating creeping creatures. Is it because they are physically close to the ground, or because they burrow in the dirt that makes these creatures more materialistic than other animals? Are there are other reasons? The Torah’s commandment prohibiting the consumption of these creatures is meant to make human society holier, a society whose practical side is illuminated with the light of content and meaning.