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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Shemini 5770
Perilous Purity
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A non-religious Jew once approached the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mottel Katz zt’l and asked him, “How do you explain all of the religious Jews who lie and cheat on their income taxes?” Rabbi Katz replied, “I have a similar question about all those religious Jews who eat on Yom Kippur, drive on Shabbos, and don’t eat only Kosher.” The non-religious man was perplexed, “But those people are not religious?” Rabbi Katz nodded, “And neither are the ones that you mentioned!”

The Torah details the laws of kosher and non-kosher animals, birds, and fish, noting that adherence to these laws helps strengthen the innate holiness within every Jew.

In order for an animal to be kosher for consumption, it must be a ruminant (cud-chewing) and have split-hooves. Any animal that does not possess both of those traits may not be eaten.

“But this is what you shall not eat from among those that bring up their cud or that have split hooves: the camel, because it brings up its cud, but its hoof is not split - it is unclean to you; and the hyrax for it brings up its cud, but its hoof is not split it is unclean to you; and the hare for it brings up its cud, but its hoof is not split, it is unclean to you; and the pig, for its hoof is split and its hoof is completely separated, but it does not chew its cud – it is unclean to you” (11:4-7).

The vernacular of the verses seems enigmatic. If the Torah wants to delineate why certain animals are not kosher why does it first list the manner in which those animals meet the criteria that would render it kosher? In other words, if the Torah wants to emphasize that the camel, hyrax, and hare are not kosher because their hooves are not split, why first mention that they chew their cud? And if the Torah wants to emphasize that the pig is not kosher because it does not chew its cud, why first mention that it has split hooves?

The Kli Yakar explains that in mentioning the ‘kosher components’ of the animal before listing their ‘non-kosher components’ the Torah is emphasizing a very poignant lesson. The fact that these animals meet certain kosher criteria is not a positive thing but rather is a further deficiency in the purity of those animals.

Eisav is compared to a pig. A pig is wont to stick out its hooves as if to promulgate the fact that it is a kosher animal. The fact that it fails to chew its cud is far less apparent. In that sense the pig is the perfect representation of Eisav who seeks to obscure his enmity towards Yaakov and his descendants. The fact that Eisav shows an external front of love and fraternity does not mitigate his wickedness, but rather increases it. Because of his chicanery and deviousness Eisav is a far more dangerous enemy than one who does not conceal his nefarious intent.

In a similar vein the Torah warns us that the camel, hyrax, and hare are not ‘less impure’ because they possess one of the criteria that would render it kosher. Rather, the fact that it seems to be partially kosher causes those animals to be ‘more impure’.

The Kli Yakar continues that the Medrash notes that the four not-kosher animals mentioned are symbolic of the four major exiles. “The camel refers to Babylonia… the hyrax refers to Persia… the hare refers to Greece… and the pig refers to Edom…[1]

The reason why these specific animals represent those bitter exiles is because each of those nations contained traits that were alluring and tantalizing to the exiled Jew. That itself was/is the greatest danger. The ‘signs of purity’ within the impure animal pose the greatest threat to our spiritual well-being.

The message of the Kli Yakar is not merely about the dangers we face externally, but perhaps even more so internally. Human beings are by nature subject to weakness and frailty, which includes the paradoxes and contradictions which we all live at times.

A wise man once quipped that human character is like New York weather in April. There can be wintry weather one day and summery weather the next day[2].

We are even more badgered and befuddled by those who unabashedly live such contradictions. A man who prays intensely but cheats in business, one who gives generously to charity but is not careful with the laws of kashrus, one who observes Shabbos meticulously but slanders and maligns others freely, one who eats kosher but does not “speak” or “act” kosher, one who acts respectfully and generously to all but is a tyrant within his home, etc.

The Kli Yakar reveals to us the subtle insight that the Torah is teaching us. External piety inextricably connected with internal iniquity is the most dangerous level of impurity. Surely we must be wary of the external danger we face in this regard, and we must undoubtedly not allow our faith to be shaken by our pitiful brethren who live in such a sorry manner[3]. But the greatest lesson is regarding ourselves. We must ensure that our own actions are as pure as possible.

The parsha concludes with G-d’s message that G-d redeemed us from Egyptian bondage so that we can become holy through adherence to His laws[4]. The laws of holy eating remind us that in every facet of our behavior we have a responsibility to sanctity the Name of G-d, His holy People, and His holy Torah.

“But this is what you shall not eat”

“And the pig refers to Edom”

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[1] Egyptian exile is not considered one of the four exiles because it essentially was before the Jews became a nation. It is also viewed as the prototype of all the future exiles and therefore remains in a class of its own.

[2] This year we have surely experienced such erratic weather patterns, from blizzard and hurricane-like conditions, to balmy July-like weather in a matter of days.

[3] My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein shlita, would always remind us not to confuse Jews with Judaism.

[4] See 11:45, and Rashi

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