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Why Should God Care About What We Eat?

  • Why Should God Care About What We Eat?

    Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
D'var Torah By: 

What can God be thinking?

In this week's Torah portion, Moses is told--of all things--what the Israelites should and should not eat. Why should the Creator of the universe care?

For many reasons. God took great pains to create a beautiful garden to grow from the earth so the First Couple would have plenty to eat. Israel was barely out of Egypt when God sent manna from heaven so the First People would have plenty to eat. In Deuteronomy 8:10, God even articulated a threefold mitzvah regarding eating: You shall eat (ie., you may not starve yourselves); you shall be satisfied (ie., with whatever you have); you shall say a blessing (ie., you shall acknowledge that your food is a gift from God).

And God had imposed such restrictions previously. In Eden we were to eat only what we could gather from the garden. But thinking that a diet of red meat might help channel the aggressiveness that led to the Flood, God permitted Noah's children to add animal meat to their diet, specifying that we could not eat the blood that carried the animal's life force. Then, in cognition of Jacob's thigh wound by the angel, we were not to eat the thigh muscle (no porterhouse, sirloin, or filet mignon). And on another occasion, God asked us not to boil a kid in its mother's milk, which is one of those mitzvot that are meant to teach us compassion.

But what values are we to learn from the list of animals permitted and prohibited in Leviticus 11. Many answers have been suggested: We should avoid predatory creatures lest we prey on others; some of these were worshipped as gods, and we deny their power by not ingesting them (we are not what we eat); they once posed health risks; they impose a discipline that separates us from common practices to make sure we retain our own practices, since separation is part of what it means to be a holy people, an am kadosh. But the Torah gives no reasons-except that God has asked us to eat in this fashion. And surely we know today that eating is no longer an end in itself but an instrument of survival, health; and, as Judaism adds, drawing closer to God. And if you argue that we should expand the list of prohibited animals to include veal or return to the Eden diet altogether, you would be supported by the Reform idea that new times illuminate new aspects of Torah's truth.

One of those truths, this portion tells us, is that eating brings us to the garden of a caring God.

For further reading:

Gates of Mitzvah, Simeon Maslin, ed. (CCAR Press).

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is executive director, Los Angeles Hillel Council.

. . . So That the Presence of God May Appear to You
Davar Acher By: 
Nachama Skolnick Moskowitz

This week's parashah, Shemini, is a striking example of the power of ritual, repetition, and high drama. In the seven celebratory days following the erection of the Tabernacle, Moses has consecrated the kohanim, the "priests," and performed the special sacrifices. On the eighth day he instructs Aaron in making three offerings: a sin offering for himself (Aaron), a burnt offering for the people, and a peace offering. When the three sacrifices are completed, the drama continues.

Aaron lifts his hands and blesses the Children of Israel before coming down from the altar and going into the Tent of Meeting with his brother, Moses. When they emerge, the people are blessed again. Then God's Presence appears and fire comes forth to consume the sacrifices. We can only imagine the excitement, energy, and even fear the Children of Israel experience as they shout and fall on their faces.

This eight-day event, occurring just a couple of weeks before the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, was designed with high pageantry and tension. The Children of Israel observed and participated in the drama of the consecratory events that became part of their collective memory and bonded them more strongly and concretely with their God.

Then, as now, Judaism is a religion in which the masses are brought closer to God by hearing, seeing, and doing. We saw it in Genesis when our ancestors built altars and prayed to God. We saw it in Exodus with the events at Sinai. We see it in this week's Torah reading with the consecration of the kohanim and the daily sacrifices in the Tabernacle.

Though in the biblical narrative our ancestors have just weeks before their own observance of the first anniversary of their Exodus from Egypt, we ourselves have a full month before Pesach begins. As we plan our own contemporary celebration, we might think about the power of hearing, seeing, and doing. Will we have a perfunctory seder- read a little and eat a lot? Or will we find ways to connect ourselves more strongly to our ancestors who lived almost 3,250 years ago?

This week, Moses tells the Children of Israel, "This is what Adonai has commanded you so that the Presence of God may appear to you." They orchestrated God's plan and were energized by the results. We, too, can be energized during Pesach as we relive the Exodus and its surrounding events. Now is the time to begin Pesach preparations. Indeed, how we will orchestrate the seder to bond our families and friends to God and the Jewish people?

For further reading:

The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder, Dr. Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver (New York: The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, 1988).

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, RJE, is the Director of Curricular Resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.

Reference Materials: 

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636