Send For Yourself

         At times in life we all have to do things for ourselves, as opposed to for others. Even if others tell us not to do so, we feel that something is the right thing to do. G-d told Moses to send for himself men to scout out the land. Why does it need to say לך, “for yourself”? The general answer given is that G-d did not need to have men sent out for he knew the land was good. Moses, on the other hand, needed to have people go for himself, to give proof that the land was good.

Ephraim of Luntshitz wrote in his book Kli Yakar four reasons for the word לך. The first is for his good and his benefit. The Israelites said to Moses “send out before us men to search out the land,”[1] and Moses did as they requested. It will not be for the people’s benefit, as based on their report they will die; rather it will be in Moses’ benefit as he will live an additional 40 years.

The second reason given by Kli Yakar is that G-d wanted Moses to see that people can be deceitful, that they flatter you when in reality disguising themselves for purposes of falsehood. Moses thought the spies were important, reputable people, but their inner nature did not match their outer appearance (אין תוכם כברם), as we learned from their reports.

The third interpretation by Kli Yakar is that in that moment they were righteous people who did the right thing, but in the future it would not be the case. G-d can see people’s actions in the future and knew that they would give bad advice. That’s why Moses had to select the people, ones who in his eyes were leaders but in G-d’s eyes would turn the people astray at the first sign of adversity.

The fourth interpretation is to me the most interesting: Kli Yakar wrote that it specifies the word אנשים, men, as opposed to נשים, women. The men in reality did not like the land of Israel and were the ones who said “let us return to Egypt.”[2] The women, on the other hand, were endeared towards Israel, as in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters who said “give us an inheritance (in the land).”[3] G-d wanted Moses to see that it would have been better to send out women who are endeared to the land of Israel. Moses, in contrast, thought that these men would be drawn to the land of Israel, rather than so quickly attempt an about-face towards Egypt.[4]

This text is used to demonstrate the importance of 10 people for a minyan. Because these 10 men did not have faith in G-d leading our ancestors to conquer the land of Israel, 10 are needed to declare praise of G-d three times a day. Moses thought that sending the spies would be an affirmation of their faith in G-d and their belief that they could conquer the land of Canaan. Instead, to his surprise, he found that 5/6th of the spies did not believe that they would prevail. Through this, G-d demonstrated to him that this generation was not ready to enter the Promised Land of Israel, as to engage in battles for the land would require great confidence and faith in oneself, in one’s people and in one’s G-d. Moses needed to learn this lesson for himself.

Being married requires a great deal of faith as we navigate life’s challenges. As I am only married for 3 years, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be married for 66 years like Larry and Lorraine. It must have taken faith in one another and a transcendent love to navigate all the vicissitudes on life’s roller coaster. I’m so happy that you chose to celebrate the affirmation of your love and the years of bliss you’ve share together with us this morning at the JJC.

Larry and Lorraine exemplify for us having faith in why we are here and our ability to transcend any obstacle that we face. Let us learn from their example of commitment and dedication. Often the summer is an excellent time to recharge and prepare for the coming year. In doing so, let us do all that we can to affirm our faith that we will have the wisdom and foresight to meet whatever crosses our path. We wish Lorraine and Larry Mazal Tov for their years of companionship and only good things to come.

[1] Deuteronomy 1:22

[2] Numbers 14:4

[3] Numbers 27:4

[4] Kli Yakar on Numbers 14:2 ד”ה שלח לך אנשים

Ruth and My Grandmother

Little of this strange land did she understand

Except the need to glean and gather grain within her hand.

Little of strange language did she comprehend.

A foreigner and widow, her lot was just to bend

And garner enough sustenance for her and for one other.

Thus, Ruth endured and cared for her husband’s aged mother.

Her skin deep burnt by blaze of sun, her garments flecked with grain,

Ruth labored dawn till sunset-in heat of day, in rain.

She, often, knew discouragement but vowed she would remain

Within this place of one God-her faith would strong sustain.

And, often, she knew loneliness-still, she felt gratitude

For love shared with Naomi, for shelter and for food.

She looked beyond her circumstance to view all life as blessed-

How should she dream she, one day soon, would know great happiness-

How should she dream she soon would cradle child unto her breast.

Lucille Frenkel Shavuot 5738 (1978)[1]

You never know how you are touched in life by the smallest thing. I wrote this sermon after a March where I felt depression about my grandmother’s passing. It hit after Shiva and stayed with me throughout the month. Depression according to the Baal Shem Tov is the greatest sin-how much more so during the month of Adar when one is commanded to only feel joy. At the same time, while you can work on changing your mentality and making the most out of each and every day, you can never completely control what you feel. My friend Marty said last year that “the thing that makes depression so hard to fight is that depression destroys your will to fight.” I knew that I needed to change for my wife and daughter but I didn’t know how.

When you know your world will never be the same what snaps you out of this feeling of helplessness? What give you hope again for the future? I can only speak from personal experience and say that my Uncle Dan sending me one of my grandmother’s new poems was the impetus for me. I shared the poem entitled “Our Precious Heritage: Respecting Truths Our Ancestors Gifted to Us” at the April board meeting. After reading it I instantly knew that I wanted to write my Shavuot sermon in my grandmother’s memory. Her Shavuot poem about Ruth made me think deeply about how much faith Ruth had to have. She just lost her husband and had no children. As a single individual, the sensible thing to do would have been to return to her native Moav. Yet Ruth knew she could not abandon her mother-in-law Naomi, despite Naomi’s encouragement for her to do so. Instead she made a vow: “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d.”[2] She chose a much harder life unaware of what the future would bring. I’m sure that Ruth gleaning under the sweltering Israel sun had no conception that she would meet and marry a kinsman and become the great-grandmother of King David.

I know that my grandmother would have wanted me to carry on. She loved living so much and strove to do her best each and every day. I remember when I felt like leaving rabbinical school and she told me “You’re not a quitter.” She always gave me the strength and fortitude to continue on no matter what challenges I had. My grandmother was always the first person I called for advice, up at 4:30 each morning. She valued raising a family so much and giving her entirety to the next generation. One of my reasons for wanting to have a child so quickly was to make her a great-grandmother so that she could see the fulfillment of her values in the next generation. She never had it easy but like Ruth she kept her faith and integrity in what she believed.

There’s another side of Ruth that I’d like to share, which I found in my wife Karina. We had been dating for less than 2 months when I found out that my position as Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Anshei Israel was eliminated. I drove to Karina’s apartment, tears streaming down my face, and told her. I said “I’m going to need to move, and you didn’t sign up for this.” I’ll never forget her response as she hugged me. She said, “I didn’t sign up for this; I chose it.” I knew then that this was the woman I was going to marry. Like Ruth, Karina could have chosen the path of least resistance, to run away. Certainly women I had dated before chose to do so for far lesser reasons. Instead, she chose to stay by my side as I went through a time of uncertainty. Who would have dreamed at that point that we’d have a beautiful daughter and puppy and have found such a warm, loving and generous congregation as the Jericho Jewish Center?

As we remember those who are no longer in our midst, it can be very easy to feel depression or melancholy. After all, these people shaped who we are and our lives have deep voids without their physical presence. At the same time, we are grateful for how they have made our lives all the richer and for all the blessings they imparted in us by how they lived. We remember them with a wellspring of emotions and we live each day knowing that they would be proud of who we have become and of how we live our lives.

This is another of my grandmother’s poems about Ruth, entitled “Ruth at the Burial of Naomi.”

The tears well up within Ruth’s eyes.

She must admit this open grave,

The fact of Naomi’s demise.

She, who would not live separate

From her in life, must now accept

That death, that such is each man’s fate.

And now Ruth weeps with painswept tears

Recalling all their past shared years.

And she shall miss Naomi’s love.

And she shall miss Naomi’s voice.

She chose to follow in her steps

And never did regret that choice.

Ruth wonders how she shall live on-

Then sees the face of her own son.

She views in his life patterning.

She sees in his life’s flowering

An echo of Naomi’s being.

Ruth would not have him fear of death

Nor question preciousness of breath

She would not have her tears defile

His faith in life. Ruth prays for strength,

And with a love which conquers grief,

Through tears, she manages a smile.[3]

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Biblical Adventure Milwaukee: The Eternity Press, 1980), p. 138

[2] Ruth 1:16

[3] Lucille Frenkel, A Biblical Adventure Milwaukee: The Eternity Press, 1980), p. 147.

The First Fruits Ceremony

Think back to when you had to learn formulas and equations in school. Did you find this learning meaningful or was it just boring, rote memorization? Is there anything to be gained from the learning and recitation of statements?

The sole example of a biblical formula recited by someone occurred on Shavuot. In Parshat Ki Tavo, it lists that when the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they should take their first fruits and give them to the Kohen to offer to G-d. They should then recite a formula which begins הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כִּי-בָאתִי אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ. ‘I profess this day unto the LORD your God, that I am come unto the land which the LORD swore unto our fathers to give us.’ [1]

The formula continues with a passage very familiar to us from the Passover Haggadah: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב., “My father was a wandering Aramean who sojourned down to Egypt and lived down there few in number and there became a great, numerous nation.”[2] The formula recited goes on to discuss our suffering under slavery, how G-d saved us and then how G-d brought us into the land of Israel “וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.” “And G-d brought us to this place and he gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”[3] Now that we are in Israel the person bringing the fruit should joyously proclaim “וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.” “And now I have brought my first fruits which G-d has given me,”[4] setting it down before G-d and prostrating oneself before G-d.

I imagine our ancestors waiting with bated breath for the opportunity to reach Israel, arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, recite these words before G-d and then give up something which is theirs for the Kohen, G-d’s emissary, to consume. Mishnah Bikkurim teaches that our ancestors would hold the barrel of fruit on their shoulders during their pilgrimage to the Temple. Upon arrival before the Kohen, they would lower it from their shoulders to literally bite on its handle. The Kohen would place his hand under the basket and lift it up, thus symbolizing his taking over ownership of the basket.[5]

What relevance does this have for us today? We do not live in Israel, nor do we offer fruit as a sacrifice of gratitude before G-d. However, what we continue to do is to look for ways to demonstrate our appreciation for all that we have. We recognize the humble beginnings of our parents and grandparents who came before us, many of whom were immigrants to the United States and who sacrificed so much of themselves so that we have what we have today. Similarly, our ancestors endured the hardships of crossing through the desert in order to give this generation the opportunity to worship G-d in the Land of Israel.

Shavuot is an additional time to appreciate our bounty: that we are Jewish, that we have been given the Torah and that we have found so much blessing in the land in which we live. We should never take this for granted, recognizing instead the great cost and sacrifices it took for us to reach where we are today. A ritual like the First Fruits, though it has fallen into desuetude, is yet another example of showing gratitude and graciousness for all that we have. I hope that we find in our daily lives opportunities to make room for rituals like it, having moments of consciousness for all of our blessings. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:3

[2] Deuteronomy 26:5

[3] Deuteronomy 26:9

[4] Deuteronomy 26:10

[5] Mishnah Bikkurim 3:6

Everyone Counts

We have now reached the series of Torah portions that is a mathematician’s dream. After all, this section of the Torah is called Numbers! In Parshat B’midbar, a census is taken of the Israelite men of military age who would later conquer the Land of Canaan. The total count of these men numbers 603,550. However, each tribe was listed individually. Why did the Torah choose to enumerate the exact number of men in each tribe when it could have just as easily given the total?

One interpretation is that listing by tribe indicates the military prowess present in each tribe, demonstrating how many men it could contribute to battle. Another is that it demonstrates the specificity with which the census was done. Just listing a total number of Israelites, especially one of over 600,000 males could imply that people were missed, as opposed to showing how many were in each tribe. The interpretation that I prefer is that the listing of the tribes indicates that each one contributed to the development of the Israelite nation. What was important was not the total sum but rather the contributions of each of the individuals who comprised that total. While B’midbar only speaks about men, every man represented so many other people: the elders who could not fight and the wives and children who supported him. The tribe with the most men, Judah, did not count for any more than the tribe with the fewest men, Manasseh. Rather, each tribe was viewed as necessary and was valued for its contributions to the conquest and settlement of Canaan.

There is a valuable lesson here: just as each tribe was individually valued, so too is each individual valued for what he or she contributes to our community. Rather than just looking at the final outcome, we can take a step back and pride ourselves on the work that it took to reach that point. This is a precious lesson for us to recognize now when we are on the cusp of Shavuot, the holiday on which we renew our receipt of the Torah each and every year. Each evening for seven entire weeks we have been counting up to this moment, reliving our ancestors’ journey out of Egyptian slavery and to Mount Sinai. Now we are finally reaching the moment where the counting is complete.

At the Jericho Jewish Center we recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that we are worth far more as a congregation than the number of members we have. Everyone here is valued as an individual, rather than as a number, and each of us has a role to play in the strengthening of our congregation. We each should receive recognition for who we are and for all that we do in making our congregation the warm, welcoming place that it is. This year I have seen so much resiliency and strength in leading services, planning programs and welcoming members. Let me especially thank Martha and Diane, our outgoing Presidents, the entire Executive Board and Board of Trustees, everyone who attends minyan and Shabbat services and all our program and committee chairs for all you do for our congregation. You are leading by example and showing that we are a congregation where everyone counts and at which everyone is valued.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Hag Matan Torateinu Sameach.

Showing Respect for G-d’s Name

Under which circumstances do you most often hear G-d’s name mentioned? What emotions go along with the person saying G-d’s name?  What do you think of when you hear G-d’s name mentioned in that setting?

Most think of sanctifications of G-d’s name (קדוש ה). At the end of today’s Torah portion, however, there is a negative usage of G-d’s name (חלול ה).  A story is told of a fight between a man who was half-Israelite, half-Egyptian with a man who was fully Israelite.  The man who was half-Israelite cursed his fellow with G-d’s name, and G-d told Moses to have the Israelites take him outside their camp and stone him.  This became the source for killing someone who blasphemes, violating the 3rd commandment by taking G-d’s name in vain.

This story is peculiar to me for several reasons.  Why is the man not given a name?  We are told his mother’s name is Shelomit, that she is daughter of Dibri and that they are of the tribe of Dan, but we are not told this man’s name.  As the Bible is a book that loves genealogy, often telling us people’s names in list form without elaborating on them, it is unusual that we have an example of an unnamed individual.  Also, why does it make a difference that this man is half-Israelite, half-Egyptian?  One could argue that he was of lesser status, since his mother was an Israelite and father was an Egyptian, and in biblical times patrilineal descent was the standard of one’s ethnicity, yet I still see it as strange for the text to mention this man’s parentage twice without giving him a name.[1]

The commentators have a field day posing answers to these questions.  Rashi states that the man’s Egyptian father was the Egyptian who Moses killed because he was oppressing an Israelite.  He says that he converted to Judaism, as the text says that he was “within the children of Israel.”  He also asserts that the man’s mother, Shelomit, was a harlot, which alludes to earlier in the Torah portion, where it says “You shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry.”  Furthermore, he states that Shelomit was a chatterer, seen by her being the daughter of Dibri, as the word Daber means to speak.  Shelomit’s excess chatter led to her ruin, as we see through her son’s behavior and eventual stoning.  This follows a common pattern of Rashi using Midrash to both recycle biblical characters (the father of this man is the Egyptian that Moses killed) and to make sinners into people with bad lineage.

Ibn Ezra, instead of focusing on this man’s genealogy, centers on the word for curse, yikov.  This is not the common word for curse in the Bible, and Ibn Ezra, who was a grammarian, points out that this word can also mean “to pronounce,” which he believes is its correct use here.  This would mean that the man’s sin is not to curse in G-d’s name but saying G-d’s name, specifically the Tetragrammaton.[2]

Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the word yikov as “pronounce” rather than “curse” is probably more accurate, as that is how it is used more times in the Torah.  Nevertheless, the implications of this are frightening: simply saying G-d’s name could be grounds for death.  It is also problematic, albeit less so, to say that one is liable for death if he/she curses in the name of G-d, as in a fit of anger it is easy to say “G-d d— it” even though one generally does not mean that G-d should curse.  The rabbis of the Talmud were also bothered by this, and in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin they sought to limit the applicability of one being killed for cursing in G-d’s name.  They said that one needs to be witnessed by two witnesses and that he/she has to say a specific formula: “May G-d smite G-d.”  Such a formula is not likely to be said (as it is much more likely to say “May G-d smite you”) and may have been used to combat Gnostics, who believed in multiple parts of G-d that could be in opposition to one another.  Talmudic rabbis often limit cases, like this one of blaspheming, in order to minimize situations where one would need to be punished.

As we read Parshat Emor, let us think about the situations in which we say G-d’s name, or a variation of it, like “gosh.”  Do we generally say G-d’s name when we are happy, “Thank you G-d!” when we are surprised, “Oh my G-d” or when we are angry “G-d d— it!”  How can we ensure that we use G-d’s name in positive contexts rather than for a negative outburst or a curse?  G-d represents what is special and sacred about the world, and I therefore want to be sure to use G-d’s name to highlight the awe and reverence that I have.  At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that we are human and will likely use G-d’s name in an outburst of anger.  Doing so is not the same as the man who cursed in the Bible, as he specifically used G-d’s sacred name, the Tetragrammaton, which we no longer know how to pronounce.  It is also paramount to recognize that at times we might not see G-d in a positive light, or we might question G-d’s existence, both of which are different from using G-d’s name for a negative or destructive purpose.  May these days leading up to Shavuot be times of thinking about how we view G-d’s name in whatever form we conceptualize G-d: Adonai (lord), Elohim (judge), Shadai (almighty), Shechinah (the feminine presence of G-d which dwells amongst us) or simply as G-d, and may our contemplation of G-d bring us closer to the divine.

[1] After this man blasphemes he is brought before Moses, but Moses waits for G-d to give him the man’s verdict.  There are only a few times in the Bible where Moses does not directly tell the Israelites what to do, others being when the daughters of Zelopehad come before him to ask for land and when the man who violates Shabbat by carrying sticks is caught.

[2] Jews had such a great fear of the wrong person pronouncing the Tetragrammaton and angering G-d that it became only pronounced by the High Priest at the Temple.  After the Temple’s destruction, that name became forgotten and was replaced by Adonai, meaning “the LORD.”  Over time Adonai, the term substituted for the Tetragrammaton, became a sacred name in and of itself, which is why some Jews today will not refer to G-d as Adonai but as Hashem, “the name.”

 

The Disease of Tzaraat Contrasted to Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

Many of the laws about tzaraat, or “scale disease,” deal with the isolation of an individual who has contracted it. Why would such a person need to be separated from the community? Was there something contagious about the disease? It appears from the text that the contagion was not physical but rather spiritual.

In looking at the Torah portion, we see that one who has contracted tzaraat (כל אשר הנגע בו) becomes impure (טמא יטמא) and must isolate himself from the entire Israelite community (בדד ישב מחוץ למחנה מושבו). [1] The rabbis teach that מצורע is a shorthand for מוציא שם רע, evil speech. The individual thus needs to be isolated because the gossip which he spread is contagious. However, why isolate him not only from the Israelite community but also from anyone else who is impure? Rashi points out that evil speech begins on a one-on-one level, בין איש לאשתו, בין איש לרעהו.[2] Therefore the offender must be isolated so that s/he does not continue to perpetuate the sin of evil speech.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz takes note of this in her book Studies in VaYikra where she comments that “the plague teaches us that society should take notice of the first sign of misconduct, however small. Just the same as a disease begins with hardly noticeable symptoms and can be stopped if detected in time, so a moral disease in society can be prevented from spreading if immediate steps are taken. Otherwise it will spread throughout the community.”[3] One piece of gossip can tear a community apart, whereas one act of kindness can build bridges unforeseen before.

Let us relate this to next week’s maxim, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך,” which translates to “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[4] Rabbi Akiva asserted זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is the great maxim in the Torah. What makes this so great, and how is it even feasible to do this? Rabbi Shalom Noach Borozovsky wrote in his book Netivot Shalom, כך אמר להם הקב”ה לישראל, בני אהובי, כלום חסרתי דבר שאבקש מכם, ומה אני אבקש מכם, אלא שתהיו אובהין זה את זה ותהיו מכבדין זה את זה, “G-d said to Israel, ‘the only thing I request from you is that you love one another and honor each other.”[5]  Loving your neighbor builds community-gossiping about him/her tears it apart.

Our task is further reflected in Ramban (Nahmanides)’s statement on this verse. He asserts that the Torah commands us to love our fellow in all matters by wanting only good things to happen to him/her, like we want only good things to happen for ourselves.   We should strive to want the best for those around us.[6] Often gossip emanates from jealousy or personal insecurity, whereas confidence and security in oneself can lead to wanting only good for others as well.

When we have the temptation to gossip or to deman others, let us instead turn away from this temptation, as once we engage it is all the more difficult to turn back. Similarly, when we hear the words ואהבת כמוך לרעך in next week’s Torah reading, let us reflect on what we can do to advocate for those around us and to show them genuine affection. Let us also strive to be happy for what they have, even when they have something that we wish we had.  By embracing those in our community and in our congregation with warmth and love and genuinely being happy for them with all of their successes, we will affirm our קהילה קדושה, our holy community, and we will steer clear of gossip and resentment and truly fulfill the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

[1] Leviticus 13:46

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 13:44 ד”ה בדד ישב

[3] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in VaYikra p. 137-18.

[4] Leviticus 19:18

[5] Netivot Shalom, Tazria, page 61.

[6] Ramban on Leviticus 19:18

Kashrut: Physical or Spiritual Act

Our Torah portion for this coming week contains one of the fundamental commandments: kashrut.  The sixth aliyah in elaborate detail goes through which land animals, birds and fish we are able to eat.  Why are some animals considered kosher and other are not?  What is it about chewing one’s cud and having split hooves for land animals or having fins and scales for fish that makes them kosher?

The Torah itself does not give a reason other than saying that these animals are “impure” or “an abomination.”  Rashbam, a 12th century French commentator who was a grandson of Rashi, suggests that the reason is that the animals which do not meet the requirements for kashrut are themselves repulsive.  He wrote, אסר הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל מאוסים הם, ומקלקלים ומחממים את הגוף, ולפיכך נקראו טמאים  G-d forbade these to Israel because they are repulsive, and they damage and irritate the body, and therefore they are called impure.  The Akedat Yitzhak, a 15th century Spanish commentator, disagreed with Rashbam, stating, “We ought to bear in mind that the laws of kashrut are not, as some have asserted, motivated by therapeutic considerations, G-d forbid!  Were this the case, the Torah would be reduced to the level of a minor medical treatise…moreover, the alleged ill-effects can be treated by various drugs, just as there are antidotes to the most powerful poisons.  In that event, the prohibition would no longer apply, and the Torah would be rendered void.”

The Sefer HaHinuch, an anonymous 13th century work on the 613 commandments, asserts that the Torah did not give a reason for the observance of kashrut on purpose, “lest people with scientific pretensions argue: the harm attributed by the Torah to this food only applies to certain types of climates and persons.”  Then why keep kashrut if there is no reason given?  Here the Sefer HaHinuch connects keeping kosher to the concept of holiness, for “the body is the tool of the soul through which the latter accomplishes its functions and without which it could never fulfill its task.”  Our body is connected to our soul, and therefore our physicality is intertwined with our spirituality.

Sefer HaHinuch’s interpretation demonstrates that kashrut is both about being mindful about both what enters our body and our soul.  Kashrut is not simply an act of buying items with rabbinic supervision or having two sets of dishes but rather utilizing both what we put into our body and into our mind to serve God.   Kashrut thus becomes an act of appreciating the effort that went into producing the food we are about to consume, being aware of where it came from, as well as of food’s role in giving us energy to continue to have a relationship with God.

This awareness is best described by Harold Kushner in his book To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, which I have my conversion students readKushner says “There is nothing intrinsically wicked about eating pork or lobster, and there is nothing intrinsically moral about eating cheese or chicken instead. But what the Jewish way of life does by imposing rules on our eating, sleeping, and working habits is to take the most common and mundane activities and invest them with deeper meaning.”  The gift of kashrut is being mindful of G-d’s relationship with us.

This is all the more relevant in our contemporary world, when there isfocus so much attention on mindfulness and being focused on the moment in which we are rather than letting it pass us by. Too often we either look ahead or dwell on the past without being aware of how we can make the most out of our present. Kashrut helps give us this gift, enabling us to focus on what we are consuming, the hard work that was taken in order to get that food on our table and our gratitude to G-d that we are blessed to have what we need to eat.

When we partake in a beautiful Kiddush, I hope you will join me in being grateful for the food we are about to consume and thinking about how it will nourish our bodies and souls.  Let us sanctify the food that we eat with a blessing and show our appreciation for all that we have.  May we recognize that through the food we are about to consume, we can better serve God and continue to play an integral role in our activities in the world.