D’var Torah: Esther Rosi-Kessel (Shemini)

My parsha, Parshat Shemini, in the book of Leviticus, begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the traveling Tabernacle. During the ceremony, Aaron’s sons, the priests Nadav and Avihu approach the altar and bring their own “alien fire” before God, not waiting for the Heavenly fire to consume the offerings. They are punished by death. Moshe asks the Kohanim, the priests, to remove the bodies and Moshe tells his brother Aaron that in order for the people not to become very upset and doubt the purpose of the mishkan, they must stay silent. There are very different opinions over the generations about what was Nadav and Avihu’s sin.

Then it says, “And Aaron was silent.” Many people think his silence was a bad thing, like he wasn’t allowed to mourn his son’s deaths, but I think it could have actually been his way of mourning. Not everyone cries or talks or is loud about their sadness. Many people deal with feelings silently, in their heads. Maybe the Torah was trying to tell us that there are different kinds of people, and everyone has their own way of dealing with things.

Then the portion continues with Kosher laws, such as: only eat land animals which have split hooves and chew their cud, and only fish with scales and fins can be eaten. It also gives the list of which birds can be eaten, and says that you can’t eat birds of prey.

According to some interpretations of Torah, humans were never really supposed to eat meat. In the Garden of Eden, God said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.” God only says that plants can be eaten. Fast-forward to the time of Noah: after the flood, people really wanted to eat animals. God gives Noah and his descendants permission to eat meat, but God also says: “But flesh, with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.” God prohibits eating blood, or the life of the animal. Much later, when the Israelites are stranded in the desert, God gives them Manna. Many people believe this was a second chance at a vegetarian diet. But they weren’t satisfied, the people wanted meat. So God gave them quail, but it was the ONLY thing they could eat. Think about it: only eating one food for about a month, wouldn’t you get sick of it, even if you liked it at first? This could be saying, maybe eating meat isn’t really the best option. The Kosher laws could be saying that if you have to eat meat, you still need to be mindful of what you’re eating.

The kosher laws tell people what they can and can’t eat. There are many things I can’t eat. I’m vegetarian, and I have never  eaten meat. My whole family is also vegetarian. I also have celiac disease, so I can’t eat gluten. I think this makes me much more aware of what I’m eating. When I go to a restaurant, I can’t just pick any item and say, “Oh, this looks good. I’ll get it.” I need to make sure it’s something I can eat. When many people eat food, they don’t really think much about what they’re eating. They don’t think about what’s in their food, because they don’t need to, but they also don’t think about where their food is coming from. Many people don’t realize that they might be eating an animal that had a really bad life while it was alive. Because I have to be more mindful about what I’m eating, I’m more sensitive to what it feels like to have restrictions on what I’m eating, so when there’s someone with a food allergy, I know what it feels like not to be able to eat anything at a party or event or restaurant. Even though the meat laws for kosher don’t really apply to me, because I don’t eat meat, I still think they’re important in helping people be more mindful about food. According to kosher laws, meat is only kosher if the animal was killed painlessly. People who keep kosher are often more mindful about their food. Whether or not you have food allergies, are vegan or vegetarian, or keep kosher, you can still be mindful about your food.

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