Shemini 5782: a column that consumes everything


GOOD MORNING! Just last week, during the Purim holiday, one of my guests told me the following story about one of his children. Let me preface this exchange by giving you a glimpse of his family. Even though they live in the very urban city of Miami Beach, for many years they raised chickens and other poultry in their backyard and kept bees for honey. As one can imagine, none of these attempts were particularly appreciated by their neighbors, and they eventually moved on to more traditional pets.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this family is also choosing to homeschool their children. These children happen to be particularly bright and remarkably wise and respectful. Whether this is a cause or effect of parents’ choice to homeschool is unclear – at least to me.

Anyway, in the state of Florida, one of the home schooling options is FLVS (Florida Virtual School). It’s an accredited K-12 program that educates nearly a quarter of a million children (aside from homeschooling, many schools offer it as a way to supplement coursework).

Florida Being in Florida, one of the concerns of living here is “hurricane preparedness,” and many schools have an introduction to emergency preparedness. This includes plans for obtaining and storing appropriate supplies, creating evacuation plans, learning the dangers of downed power lines, and more.

In the framework of of the FLVS program, each child must answer a series of questions and prepare a personal emergency plan. One of the questions is, “Do you have an emergency plan for your pets?” Please describe.” Well, the man’s eight-year-old son replied that his contingency plan for his pets was to shoot and eat them. His older sister was appalled, “Es are you serious? Is that your plan? He replied: “Well, they said it was a emergency!”

Also strange Apparently, I was particularly impressed by this young man. As we discussed last week, many people have a very skewed view of what is right or wrong and they are particularly driven by how they feel. They are unlikely to consider their pets expendable until desperation gives them a different perspective. Knowing from the start that such an eventuality is possible and building it into one’s preparedness mindset is a clarity that I found rather remarkable.

Speaking of consumables, this week’s Torah portion contains the laws of kashrut – what is allowed or forbidden to eat according to the Torah. I have already written two columns related to “keep kosher”; the laws and “whys” of kosher are thoroughly discussed (this column can be found here) and discusses a fascinating philosophical dilemma about how one should view these dietary restrictions (this column can be found here).

In the discussion of kosher laws, the Torah tells us that a kosher animal must chew the cud and have cloven hooves, and that fish must have fins and scales. But the Torah gives no hint of what constitutes kosher poultry. Instead, the Torah takes the extraordinary step of providing a long list of birds that the Jewish people are forbidden to eat. In fact, the Torah lists twenty-four classes of non-kosher birds.

Why does the Torah forbid eating certain birds? The great medieval Spanish scholar known as Nachmanides (in his commentaries on Leviticus 11:13) explains that these birds are birds of prey and suggests that if one eats predatory birds, one will become predisposed to cruelty. Nachmanides observes that consuming them could lead to an integration of some of their characteristic cruelties – a kind of medieval version of “you are what you eat”.

A of these birds is called “racham.” The Talmud (Chullin 63b) explains why it was given this name: “Once racham descends he brings compassion (‘rachamim‘) to the world.” However, this would seem to be a positive attribute. How does this align with Nachmanides’ assertion that these birds show cruelty and is the reason their consumption is prohibited?

We find in the midrash (Koheles Rabbah 7:16) a fascinating aphorism: R’ Simon ben Lakhish says, “He who becomes merciful instead of cruel will eventually become cruel instead of merciful, as it is written, ‘And Nob, the city of the priests, he smote with the edge of a sword'” (Me Samuel 22:19).

As With much of the rabbinical literature, a complete understanding of the background information is necessary to fully understand what our sages are trying to impart and teach to us.

This midrash refers to two particular stories in the life of the first king of the Jewish people – King Saul. The prophet Samuel conveyed to Saul that God had decided that the time had come to eliminate the sworn enemy of the Jewish people – the nation of Amalek (see Me Samuel Chapter 15). It was commanded to annihilate them completely; including all men, women and children – even their livestock and all their possessions. Saul and his army went to war with the Amalekites and decimated them and nearly wiped them out. Out of compassion, King Saul spared the animals, and the Amalekite King – Agag.

The all mighty was very unhappy with Saul’s failure to follow his order and informed Samuel that because of this, Saul (and his sons) would eventually lose the right to rule. The next day, the prophet Samuel informed the king of God’s displeasure, and he himself killed the Amalekite king saying; “As your sword has made women childless, so your mother will be childless among women.”

The second story that the midrash refers to when King Saul unjustly and ruthlessly wiped out the population of the city of Nob. This city was located near Jerusalem in the territory of Benjamin and many kohanim (“priests”) who served in the Temple lived there. Nob housed so many kohanim that it became known as “the city of kohanim” (1 Samuel 22:19).

At one point, King Saul decided that David (who eventually succeeded him to become king) deserved to die. David fled to the city of Nob – but did not tell them he was on the run, but rather, he told them he was on a secret mission for the king. Priest Achimelech provided him with food, supplies, and weapons.

But David had been spotted by Doeg the Edomite who promptly informed King Saul. King Saul summoned all the priests of Nob and accused them of conspiring against the throne. Ahimelech, who had acted innocently in supplying David, knew nothing of the king’s displeasure and proclaimed the truth: “Your servant knows nothing of all this affair!”

However, King Saul did not listen to reason, and he ordered to kill all the priests of Nob: “Go back and kill the priests of the Lord, for they too have taken David’s side. They knew he was leaking, but they didn’t tell me.” (Me Samuel 22:17). Fearing God more than the king, none of Saul’s guards would raise their sword against a priest, so Doeg the Edomite slaughtered all the priests. However, he didn’t stop there; included in the massacre were all the families of the priests and all the inhabitants of the city of Nob, including men, women, children and cattle.

So, the midrash proclaims that King Saul, who took pity on Agag, the cruel king of Amalek, and spared his life, became cruel in cheerfully ordering the slaughter of all the kohanim of Nob – a compassionate and peace-loving people.

What is the meaning of this midrash? Why does being compassionate towards a cruel person lead to being cruel towards someone who deserves compassion?

The answer lies in understanding the negative trait of the bird known as “racham.” In Aramaic, the word racham means to love. Love is a recognition of a commonality and this creates a desire to be connected to the object of our love. the racham descends into the world with general compassion, granting compassion even to an object which does not deserve compassion. the racham is therefore compassionate even towards cruel beings, even if he recognizes cruelty.

In other words, he contains within him a desire to be related to cruelty and that is why he is compassionate even towards the cruel. This means that he has a characteristic of cruelty in him and that is why eating is forbidden.

This is the midrash refers to ; King Saul also contained an element of cruelty within him. This is why he was able to be compassionate towards the cruel king of Amalek. This cruelty was later revealed in his terrible actions towards the kohanim of Nob and illustrated why King Saul did not deserve the role of king.

Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Final the seven days of inauguration of the mishkan (Portable Sanctuary), Aaron, the high priest, brings sacrifices for himself and for the whole nation. Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, bring an incense offering of their own accord and are consumed by heavenly fire (perhaps the only time someone has done something wrong and was immediately hit by the “lightning”).

Candle lighting hours

Silence encourages the persecutor, never the tormented.
—Eli Wiesel

Dedicated with deep appreciation to

Surf Florist, Inc.


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