Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Shmini (Leviticus 9-11)
When enumerating the non-kosher birds, the Torah mentions a bird called da’ah. The Talmud points out that, later on (Deuteronomy 14:12), when the Torah repeats the list of kosher birds, it refers to it as a ra’ah. The Talmud takes note of the Etymological significance of “ra’ah” because it is the root of the Hebrew verb “to see.” According to the Talmud, this bird possesses great eyesight; it can see a carcass in Israel while it is standing in Babylon. Although a marginal note on Talmud says that this is an exaggeration, the main idea is that this bird (vulture or buzzard?) possesses an incredible ability to see far distances. If so, why should it be non-kosher? Why would a bird possessing the wonderful gift of exceptional eyesight be non-kosher?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) explains that having the ability to see things from afar is an ideal trait, but how does the “vulture” use that gift? It sees carrion, dead flesh. The reason why the Talmud used the metaphor of seeing the Land of Israel instead of just saying that the “ra’ah” could see far distances was because it was instructing us on how to view Israel. One can see it as a land flowing with milk and honey, a homeland for Jews, beautiful vistas, and other admirable characteristics, or one can look at its negative attributes.
This idea is particularly applicable today. Some Jews are very critical of the same small track of land that our great grandparents only dreamed about; they would have given up everything for the opportunity to live or even visit Israel. “Next year in Jerusalem” is how we end the Passover Seder. We mention Zion in our daily prayers, under the chuppah when the groom breaks a glass and at other times. It is an integral part of our national ideology, culture, and religious practices. The following story illustrates this point. It is written by an American born Israeli journalist.
One morning I was driving with m teenage son, Shachar, to school. Not far from the Old City, we got caught in a traffic jam. I said, “You know, in one sense here we are sitting in a traffic jam, just like in any other city anywhere. But sometimes it occurs to me that the most boring details of our daily life were the greatest dreams of our ancestors.
I didn’t expect much of a response. Shachar is a jazz musician, tends not to speak in historical categories. But he surprised me. “I think about that a lot,” he said.
Of course he does, I realized. How can a Jew live in this country and not think about the improbability of our being?” (Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi, p. 28)
When people are negative about Israel, they should pause for a moment and think of the tremendous gift given back to the Jewish people in the second half of the 20th century. Israel is only one gift people misconstrue as something negative; some people just refuse to see the goodness in their lives.
Why are people negative? They might have been raised in a house with negative parents, fallen into a group of negative friends without realizing it or many other reasons but there’s one common denominator that they all share—they have a warped interpretation of life. Good and bad things happen to us all but how we perceive our lives and the challenges we encounter is a choice. If your interpretation of life is that you got a bum rap, life isn’t fair, everyone has it easier than you, it stands to reason that you will have a negative interpretation of life and it will affect the way you think, talk, and behave. The only way to change a negative rut in which people find themselves, is to stop and be present for a moment and ask, is there another way I could look at this situation? If you can’t find one, call someone who can help you learn to think in a more productive. We are not speaking about tragedies or major catastrophes, but the regular routine we live though every day. It’s a job, spouse, friend, house, car, and other people and things that, for some, are a source of pessimistic thought and action; they cause a person feel and act in a downbeat and displeasing way. It’s not the person you want to be and it’s not the person you want to be around.
The bird who uses the gift of long-range eyesight to see negative—death—can’t be blamed. Animals don’t make choices about morality and how to treat people—including themselves. They were given abilities and instincts they use to survive. But people are able to make decisions and most would agree that it is depressing to live from one day to the next just to survive; upbeat people live to thrive. We can blame people, places, and institutions for where we end up at any given stage of life but we alone are responsible for how to live with each vicissitude life throws our way.
The good news is that whoever you are, in whatever stage in life, you don’t have to be negative. The past is gone and there’s no reason to let it destroy the future. What are you willing to do to flip the switch to positive? Unlike the negative bird, you can live a life that’s preferred.
(Sources: Chulin 63a with Mesoras HaShas; Oznayim l’ Torah 11:14)