A few weeks ago, Jason Kahan asked me if I would give a brief D’var Torah, and I said “Of course, I’d be honored.” Then I looked at what I thought was today’s portion, and it was all about leprosy, skin diseases and menstrual purity. And I thought, “This is going to be the briefest D’var Torah in the history of the Men’s Club.”
But I discovered that it is actually next week’s Torah portion, and today’s portion is Shemini, which is one of the richest in the Torah. It includes Moses’s instructions about sacrifice and ritual; the harrowing story of Aaron’s sons, who offered “alien fire” to the Lord and were immediately struck dead; Aaron’s heartbreaking silence about it; the Lord’s words to Aaron afterwards; and then the extensive laws of Kashrut -- what we can and cannot eat.
So I could keep us here for quite a while.
But by mistakenly reading next week’s haftarah, I came across a story I think provides an insight into the laws of Kashrut, and it will let me keep this D’var Torah pretty brief.
The laws of Kashrut seem both inexplicable and ineffective. We can eat chickens and turkeys, but not eagles and pelicans. We can eat cows, but not pigs. We can eat seafood, but only if they have fins and scales. We can’t ever mix milk and meat. What is the rationale of these rules? What good do they do?
To understand Kashrut, it may help to consider not the rules, but rather the ritual. Perhaps what the ritual of Kashrut does is continually remind us that we can make each meal holy. That we are more than what we eat. That we cannot always get what we want, but we can get what we need. These are lessons that can enrich our lives.
In next week’s haftarah, there is a story about an Aramean army commander, who had leprosy. He’s advised to go see the prophets of Israel, who it is said can cure him. So he sets out on his journey, with 6,000 gold shekels and 10 changes of clothes, and gives the money to the King of Israel, who refers him to the prophet Elisha.
Elisha tells him, “bathe seven times in the Jordan River, and your flesh will be restored.” And this enrages the commander, who says, “I thought he would invoke the name of his God and wave his hand and cure me. I could have stayed home and bathed in the rivers of Damascus.” You can almost hear him saying, “For this, I paid 6,000 shekels?!”
The haftarah recounts that his servants calm him down by saying, “Sir, if the prophet told you to do something difficult, would you not do it? How much more when he has only said to you, ‘Bathe and be pure’.” So, the commander immerses himself in the Jordan, seven times, and the haftarah says he was cured.
Like the advice the Aramean commander got from Elisha, the rules of Kashrut are not difficult. They are a symbolic way of making ourselves pure. They remind us that we must be holy because the Lord is holy. They can help cure us of the disease of taking things for granted.
And they reflect not simply the advice of a prophet, but the wisdom of the Lord, and they are given to us for free -- and are worth far more than 6,000 shekels, because they can help us, if we respect the ritual, to lead a richer life. Shabbat Shalom.
-- Rick Richman