By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Shmini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47)
This week’s Torah portion is called Shmini. It is in the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. The Parsha begins speaking of Aaron and his sons being consecrated as the Kohanim, and their duties in consecrating the Tabernacle. We also find in the latter part of this week’s Torah portion, the commandments regarding kosher and nonkosher animals. From this section of the Torah we learn the basis of how to determine what is kosher to eat and what is not kosher.
As most of us already know, something which is kosher or not kosher, is a matter of what it is made of or what ingredients are in it and how it is prepared. It is not because a food item has been blessed by a Rabbi or Mashgiach as many may think. We may also notice that no reason is given in the Torah for observing these laws. We call Torah laws that have no explanation to them a Choak.
It is important to understand why the Torah gives us commandments without the reasons to observe them. Society is very sensitive about doing anything without knowing why we do it, especially in regard to religion. Experience teaches us that there is good reason for that. However, we can also appreciate that if we believe in Hashem, attributing a higher intelligence to Him, then we can accept that Gd knows better than we do.
One who studies Torah understands that putting our trust in someone who clearly knows better than we do, is not considered following blindly. There is an element of choice in it. There is clearly a time and a place where, recognizing authority means acting first and understanding later. As our people said at Sinai, Na’aseh V’Nishma.
The military is a good example of this concept. It is crucial that authority is recognized without question. Wars are won on the merit of that alone. A student of Torah, who accepts the kedusha / holiness of our scriptures, is happy to show Gd his loyalty by observing those commandments which are not explained. We rely on the knowledge that Gd knows better, and has our best interests in mind. I’d like to quote the “Sefer HaParshiot” written by the great scholar
Rabbi Eliyahu Ki Tov, regarding this topic:
He writes the following: (The) holy Israelites do not skeptically question the decrees of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, to examine and understand why He forbade one food and permitted another. They are satisfied just knowing the will of the King of The World, what they should and should not do; what they should and should not eat, whether they know the reason or not. Not only that, but they rejoice over commandments and decrees. They bless and praise the Giver of the commandments for not giving reasons! Why so? Because if reasons would be given, people might leave aside the words of the Creator, and perform the commandments for their own personal reasons. Consequently, they would be serving themselves, and not the Creator. Furthermore, if the reasons and benefits of the commandments would be explained, at some point in time someone might come along convincing others of his great wisdom. He might say that this and this commandment no longer applies. That is, since the reason appears no longer relevant, so too the commandment has no further application in our lives. Perhaps the ignorant might even listen and learn from this leader to disregard the Torah and Hashem’s commandments. Yet the laws which The Creator gave us were given to be observed forever and in all places, unless the Torah states specifically otherwise. Even though we don’t know the reasons for the commandments, and why some foods are permitted, and some not, we do know one overriding reason. It is this which is stated by King David in the book of Psalms. “Taste, and you’ll see that Gd is good.” The commandments were only given for the good of the Jewish people and the good of mankind.
Our sages ask in the midrash, “Why does Gd care which way we prepare an animal to be eaten” (whether it is slaughtered properly or not)? “The words of Gd refine (us).” (Psalms 18)
The commandments were given to refine mankind. The Creator could have made it that people follow the commandments just as He put it in nature that one would not jump into a burning fire. The nature of the fire itself prevents someone from stepping into it, and so to speak, punishes those who would. Gd could have done the same with foods that should and should not be eaten. Why did He create His world that both choices are given to mankind equally without anything naturally holding him back? It is in order to refine mankind.
There is no comparison between someone who abstains from evil deeds as a result of an iron curtain in his way, who really wishes he could do the deeds and someone who abstains because of a hedge of roses (commandments against doing such deeds) in his way. If he really wants to, he can pass through the hedge of roses. Why doesn’t he pass through? It’s because he takes pity on the roses, on their beauty and their pleasant scent, and he controls himself and abstains from passing through. Anyone who finds himself or herself tempted to do wrong, and is being overpowered by his or her inclination, yet abstains because of this hedge of roses, is pure and refined, etc.
Rabbi Ki Tov’s beautiful words speak for themselves. May we all merit to appreciate our meaningful laws and traditions that we have been commanded and that have been passed down to us L’Dor Vador – from generation to generation, and may we all enjoy the beauty and the pleasant scent of the hedge of roses that lies ahead of us in our path.
Rabbi Doug Zelden is the Rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago and chaplain for Home Bound Hospice. He also hosts the weekly TV Show “Taped with… Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).