(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
Parshat Shmini, this week’s Torah portion, begins by describing the dedication in the desert of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) – the temporary temple. After the extensive collection of donations and the complex design and construction process, the time had come for the dedication. As a follow-up to this, we read about several halachot (Jewish laws) that were learned on the day the Mishkan was established. Then, the Torah moves on to another topic, seemingly unrelated to the Mishkan and its establishment – kosher food.
We read in great detail about the cattle, the animals, the fowl, the fish and the reptiles that are forbidden and those that are permissible to eat.
If there is no connection between kashrut of food and the Temple, we cannot help but wonder why these halachot are written in the Book of Leviticus which is termed the Torah of the Kohanim (priests).
Let us briefly examine an idea written in the Torah from which the halachot relating to kashrut of food stem. This is how the Torah summarizes these halachot: “For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy, and you shall not defile yourselves... For I am the Lord Who has brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be your God. Thus, you shall be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44-45)
The reason given in these verses could be rephrased this way: Because God took the Jewish nation out of Egypt, He became “their” God, and since He is holy, they too have to be holy. This holiness is created by keeping kosher. We have to understand the meaning behind this. God created the entire universe. Therefore, He is the God of the entire world and of all of humanity. So what does it mean that He is “our” God?
This issue comes up in many places in the Bible where the term “God of Israel” is mentioned. And again it raises the question: In what way is He “ours”? In prayer, we say “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and this raises the same question. Is He only ours?
The first place that the Torah mentions the idea of “anyone’s God” is in the Book of Genesis when God forms a covenant with our forefather Abraham and sets up the obligations of both sides – God’s and Abraham’s: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God.” (Genesis 17:7-8)
In these verses, we read about God’s promise, and about His obligations to Abraham and his descendants – meaning us. God will be a God to us and will give us the Land of Israel.
The well-known commentator on the Torah Rashi defines these obligations as “a covenant of love and a covenant of the land,” meaning he recognizes the term “God of...” as a message of love. By doing so, he provides us with a way to understand the halachot of kashrut.
The accepted explanation of the name “God” is “having all ability and power.” This is an expression of strength and of absolute control of reality. According to Rashi’s explanation that this is a message of love, we can say that when God promises to be the “God of Abraham,” He is actually promising to turn His control of the world’s reality in Abraham’s favor. In other words – He promises Abraham – out of His love for him – special supervision and protection.
Now we can return to the reason for the halachot of kashrut and expand on it. Since God took the Jewish nation out of Egypt, and thus expressed His love, Providence, and protection of them, He became “their” God, meaning – He is interested in this love and wants it to be eternal.
But God has principles. God is holy. He has certain goals, as the Prophet Jeremiah said, “for I am the Lord who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for in these things I delight.”
And whoever is interested in a relationship with God must also be holy, goal-oriented, and living his life purely. This is why Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) was required to avoid eating certain foods. The restrictions placed on us in kashrut provide a path, a direction. We cannot live without consideration, without paying constant attention.
By keeping kosher, we become holy, and thus we merit God’s holiest love and protection. And since the Mishkan symbolized holiness, this Torah portion was written as part of the topics relating to holiness.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.