• Nitzotzos

Parshas Shemini - You Are What You Eat... So Eat Complex Carbs

This shiur is generously sponsored by Eliana Schwartz liilui nishmas her grandfather Michoel ben Chana and her great grandfather Avraham ben Yisrael Tzvi

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And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, to say to them: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth: Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud that one you may eat.

We do not keep kosher because it is healthier. We do not keep kosher because it is a cleaner lifestyle. Were this the case one could argue that if we discovered that pork were healthy perhaps it would be permissible to eat. The Torah does seem to give us any reason for upholding this standard.

Many years ago there was a commercial on television (though for the life of me I cannot remember what it was for) that said you are what you eat and then had different people proclaiming what they were. One person said "and I'm a slice of pizza" while another said "and I'm a frozen yogurt." While I am not convinced that our humanity is defined by the food we eat, from a spiritual perspective it does have an impact on us. The Gemara (Yoma 39a) in discussing the issur of eating sheratzim (creepy crawlers) derives from the spelling of "v’nitmeitem bam" (you will become defiled) that it causes not just tumah but also timtum halev. Rashi explains timtum halev to be a condition where the heart is "sealed off and blocks out all wisdom." The Ramban in several places explains that certain foods are forbidden by the Torah because of their negative impact on the spirit.

But what exactly is the problem with these animals? Simply because an animal doesn't have split hooves or chew its cud that renders it an animal that will have a negative impact on our spirit? It seem rather arbitrary to argue that these characteristics in animal will seal off our hearts and block us from wisdom.


When the Truth is Anything but Simple

When considering the two characteristics of an animal that lacks split hooves and does not chew its cud one can sense a unified theme. Both features indicate a duality. The animal has a right and left side to their hoof. The food is not eaten once but is digested and re-digested. What is the message being taught us?

When we are younger we often have a strong need to see the world in a very black and white fashion. Things are either good or bad. Right or wrong, True or false. As we mature we begin to realize that life is not so simple. An act can be bad but it doesn't mean that the person that perpetrated that act is evil. Right or wrong can become a matter of perspective. Truth may be more of a complex term than we initially considered. Of course there will always be people, who in the name of complexity, twist simple truths to support an illogical argument but in many cases the truth is far from simple.

Ideas are important. I once participated in a class where the teacher asked the group, "Who is more vulnerable, the teacher or the student?" As future teachers many in the group argued that the teacher experiences the greater vulnerability. Children may ridicule the teacher, be disrespectful in the classroom and ruin the flow of the lesson etc... Others argued that the student was more vulnerable. The teacher can discipline them for a failure to behave appropriately, the child may feel foolish if they fail a test etc... In the end everyone agreed that a classroom is a place that requires much courage but there was no clear winner to the debate. The teacher, a man who had an illustrious career in education, finished the discussion with his own view. He argued that it was clear to him that the student is in the more vulnerable position. Ultimately, he reasoned, the teacher is giving over the material to the student. Ideas matter. If we fail to give over the proper ideas the student is impacted in a negative fashion. Consider the ideas taught to young children growing up in environments that empower the ideas of terrorism. A child who is indoctrinated with the belief that Israel needs to be wiped off the map is more likely to commit a heinous act than one who grows up in an environment where ideas are debated and thought through in a reasonable fashion. A classroom environment ought to be one where ideas are not simply digested but are considered again and again until the full complexity of the issue has been hashed out. A spirited conversation, where ideas are examined over and over, is one that will ultimately yield a more profound truth. Indeed, in the Academy of Hillel, they would present the position of Shammai before they presented their own.

And if this is true about ideas then it is certainly true about the way we live our lives. It seems to me that the hallmark of an adult is the ability to walk a tightrope. We know that children require love and discipline at the same time. People can do terrible things to us and we can be forgiving and compassionate. We can even step back an see their own humanity while still holding on to our own pain. We can stand against a political figure or a ideological position and still see some merit in the opposing side. Life is about balance. The Rambam speaks about the golden path being in the middle. Extreme positions may be necessary in some cases but our goal is to walk in the middle of the road.


Complex Carbs

The food (ideas) that we ingest must be digested again and again. An animal that doesn't chew its cud is not one that a Jew can eat. As the nation that is chosen to be Gods emissaries in this world we have a responsibility to carefully consider the ideas that we are taught. The Gemara is written as a dialectic, examining each position over and over again through the lens of various arguments.

The life that we lead must have a certain tension to it. While we walk one path it must have both a pull from the right and the left. Each side is valuable. Who is "right?" The person that spends their lives internally focused on their own growth or the one who ignores their personal growth to focus on the growth of the community? Both have merit and we need to live in that beautiful space of tension in order to lead a meaningful life. An animal that doesn't walk with a split hoof, who can't see the value on both sides of the street, is not an animal that we should be imitating. A Jew is a hybrid of a Godly soul and a worldly body. Our very existence is predicated on tension!

The Torah is instructing us to see the world and lead lives of great nuance and thoughtfulness. This is an authentic spiritual diet.

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