Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Shmini (Levitucus 9-11) Preying vs. Praying

This week’s Parsha ends with a detailed discussion concerning the specifics for determining whether a fish, animal, or even insect is kosher. The exact names of the kosher birds are listed and in addition we are taught what characteristics a bird requires to be fit for Jewish consumption. Birds of prey are not kosher. What does preying on other animals have to do with food being ritually acceptable?

In Jewish consciousness, food doesn’t merely nourish the body, it also nourishes the soul. The same G-d who instructed us not to murder and steal also tells us not to eat certain foods because the food we eat affects our spiritual health, which influences our ability to be kind, honest, sensitive, stand up for what’s right, and all other good traits, can be affected by the food we eat. The kosher laws are not just a remnant of the days prior to refrigeration nor are they health warnings. A person can have a kosher diet but still be eating in a way that isn’t healthful. (Imagine eating two corned beef sandwiches with fries and onion rings for breakfast, brisket and deep fried latkes for lunch and rugelach, babka, and kishka for dinner. Kosher and delicious but deadly.) The main aspect of kosher food is its affect it has on our non-physical selves.

Let’s veer off to a seemingly unrelated topic. What is the root of why someone commits a crime either toward G-d or another human being? The answer is found in the last of the 10 Commandments—don’t covet. The desire for more—i.e., the mental state of not being satisfied with what one has—negates the idea that there is a Creator who gives us exactly what we need. When people are unhappy with what they have and consistently desire more, it demonstrates a lack of faith in  G-d. Don’t covet is the last of the Ten Commandments because it encompasses the first nine.

Why are birds of prey not kosher? They attack creatures and don’t even consume the entire creature, thereby demonstrating they are not content with what they have and, hence, the need to attack another creature. A person who eats them is spiritually affected by this lack of contentment attitude.

Kosher animals chew their cud and have split hooves, but how is this symbolic of being content and happy with one has? Chewing the cud represents being satisfied with what one has because instead of looking for something new, the animal reuses what it already has, which is the opposite of desiring more. When an animal has split hooves, as opposed to claws, it is not able to tear apart other animals. Kosher animals are predators.

Being happy with your lot due to your trust in G-d is one of the great lessons we learn from characteristics of kosher animals. This doesn’t negate having the qualities of persistence, hard work or creating a business model but after doing the necessary preparations, one who isn’t satisfied—no matter how much he or she has—lays the groundwork for unhappiness. The opposite of this is one who trusts G-d and is content with his or her lot. People who are content will be far removed from the “don’t desire” trap.

Classical Jewish commentaries convey that keeping kosher is important to the very essence of the being of a Jew. When one eats, the ingested physical item becomes part of the person eating it. If it is not kosher, one’s very being can be altered.

Although Jews didn’t coin the phrase “you are what you eat, ” it seamlessly fits in with Jewish ideology. The Torah tells us time after time to be sensitive to the needs of others, give charity, not cause physical or emotional pain, and so many other wonderful traits crucial to our happiness as individuals as well as essential to establishing and maintaining a moral and reasonable society. When someone isn’t content, they look elsewhere and may have to compromise what’s important to them—family, friends, honesty—in order to fulfill their desire. Instead of preying on others, try something different, pray. Create a relationship, your own personal relationship with the Almighty. Express yourself in a language and format you’re comfortable with, and just do it. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just honest and sincere.

Next time you want something that belongs to someone else, realize that many have tried “preying” but were unsuccessful in filling their void whereas those who made an (even a small) attempt at praying, felt the serenity and calm of trusting in something greater than themselves and gave them greater motivation to exploit their own talents. No matter what you choose—kosher or non-kosher, prey or pray—the main thing is to have these Jewish conversations with yourself and the people with whom we surround ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom.

(Source: Vilna Gaon (Ehven Shlomo 3:2) based on the Zohar)