Let’s go back a couple of weeks to the week before Pesach. Mike enters his boss’s office with the usual trepidation that he feels whenever he opens the cage to feed the lion. Mr. Levine looks at Mike, and says, “Yes?”. Mike looks at his nails, and finally says, “It’s two days before Pesach. I need to take off some time to help my wife”. Mr. Levine’s reply was immediate. “There’s no way that you can take off time now”. Mike’s entire demeanor changed. His face opened up into a sunny smile, “Thanks Mr. Levine. You’re a real friend. I knew I could count on you”.
Mitzvot can feel like work, and you can find yourself itching for a vacation. You are not alone. One of the major poskim (specialists in halachic law) would sometimes answer his phone with the word, “permitted”. If you asked what he means, he would say, “look. That’s what you want to hear, so why beat around the bush” (okay, his terminology was more formal, but the idea came through).
The kosher laws are especially hard. They prevent you from eating out with nonobservant or non-Jewish people. They require that you learn the symbols that tell you that the food item you are looking at makes the grade in kashrus. You have to learn how to examine some greens and grains for bugs instead of going into denial and eating them along with your lunch (I guess you would be fleishig forever). The Torah spells out the restrictions in this week’s parshah, Shemini.
The word Shemini means “the eighth”. The reference is to the final day of inaugurating the sanctuary in the desert, and feeling and seeing the miracle of Hashem’s presence descending. The number eight is often used as a symbol of transcending nature. The world was made in 6 days, the number 7 tells you that the world has an inner, spiritual dimension, but the number 8 takes you a step further.
The laws concerning the mishkan and the laws of kashrus have something in common. They are hard.
The Jews worked hard at building the mishkan-they gave their gold silver and much more to Moshe and from him, to the artisans who made it. They needed extraordinary skill and inspired insight to follow the design that Hashem revealed. Each thread, each piece of metal, each beam of wood, had an address. What was the extreme attention to detail.
The word for forbidden is “assur”, which literally means “tied down”. Hashem structured the world by creating animals, situations, etc. that are ”assur”. They don’t reveal anything of Hashem. They are tied down to being just what they look like, purely physical. What are they for? They are there not to be uplifted, but to give you the opportunity to uplift yourself, by learning to say no to your base instincts.
Meyer Birnbaum was a soldier in the American army during World War 2. The mood in America in those years was very different than it is today. Multiculturism had not yet emerged. The goal that almost any young person had was to enter the melting pot and become a “real American”. His mother taught him that whatever else he is, he is always a Jew. This meant that kosher is kosher in the army, just as it is in mom’s kitchen. He managed on raw fruits and vegetables, occasional meals given to him by Jewish families and faith in Hashem. One of his favorite treats was hard boiled eggs, cooked in his battle helmet. Those eggs were not only not “assur”, they were “muttar” which means “released”. They weren’t just food for his body, they were food for his soul.
The beginning of the parshah is about the holiest moment that we had ever experienced, the moment when the Shechinah descended. The end of the parshah is about the kosher laws. These are not two separate ideas. They are two ends of a bridge. One end, is the material world in which you live, and the other end is Hashem’s infinity flowing down to earth. As Jews we know that both ends are connected.
These ideas are not new to some of you. The underlying problem for you may not be intellectual, but in bringing these ideas home to your heart. You are not alone. There is no road as long as the one from the head to the heart.
The first one to walk the bridge was Avraham. Even as a child he looked at the world and realized that the things that the saw didn’t make themselves. He had questions and sensitivities, but no answers. His parents took him the circular route. They worshipped idols that represented various natural forces, and encouraged him to do the same. At some point he realized that all of the forces of nature are creations, and that there is a Creator who made the natural forces just as He made the animals and plants that seem to be their “offspring’s”. As he grew older, he debated the people of Ur Kasdim, and was perceived as a threat by their king, Nimrod. He was sentenced to death by fire if he refused to recant his belief in Hashem, and survived the ordeal. None of this is new to you. The next question that I will ask, may be new.
What was it like to be Nimrod the next day? If the trial by fire was on Monday, for instance, and he saw the miracle with his own eyes, there was no way for him to escape into denial. What was he thinking when he got out of bed on Tuesday?
I have no way of knowing the answer. I can just tell you what he wasn’t thinking. He didn’t consider the implications of knowing that there is a creator who not only brought the world into existence, but who is aware of human choices, and is capable of breaking his own natural law to intervene for the sake of Avraham. He stayed on one side of the bridge. Crossing the bridge takes effort, but each step you take moves you from assur to muttar and finally to being able to find Hashem wherever you look.