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This Week's Torah Portion: How Being Kosher Relates to Holiness

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Shëmini (Leviticus IX, 1 -- XI, 47)

This week’s parasha contains many of the basic laws concerning kashruth. The language of the verses introducing this section is peculiar, and bears questioning. We are told:

Vay ëdabbér Ha-Shem el Moshe vë’el Aharon lémor aléhem ... Dabbëru el bënei Yisra’él.

 “And Ha-Shem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon to say to them ... Speak to the bënei Yisra’él.” (XI, 1-2).

It is not at all clear from the context who the “them” are in the first verse. The midrash (cited by Rashi ad loc.) tells us that it refers to El‘azar and Ithamar, Aharon’s sons. In the wake of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s other two sons, reported earlier in the parasha (cf. X, 1-7), we thus have all of the kohanim (as of that moment) involved in learning about kashruth.

 But the most startling thing, unique within the Torah, is the plural imperative dabbëru in verse 2. Everywhere else in the Torah we find Moshe enjoined in the singular to impart Torah to Israel, dabbér el bënei Yisra’él. This is the only place in the written Torah in which anybody is associated with Moshe in instructing Israel and (as Rashi again notes, based on the midrash) here we have four people, Moshe and all three kohanim, associated in the command.

Why is this, and why does kashruth merit this special treatment?

It has been noted many times that the single characteristic most vital to the learning and propagation of Torah is that of ‘anava (“humility”). The Ésh Dath, the previous Ozherover rebbe, brings this home most tellingly in his answer to a famous question asked by many commentators on the Haggada shel Pesach. In the song Dayyénu we find a catalogue of all the wonders which Ha-Shem performed for Israel from the Exodus to the inauguration of the Temple, and declare at each stage that if He had only done that thing and stopped performing at that point, then dayyénu (“it would have sufficed for us”).

We follow the logic without difficulty until we read: Illu qérvanu lifnei Har Sinai vëlo’ nathan lanu eth haTorah (“Had He brought us close to Mt. Sinai and not given us the Torah”), dayyénu!

Dayyénu? The entire purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was to create the ‘am Ha-Shem. The Talmud tells us (‘Avoda Zara 3a) that the Creator made a condition with the world: “If Israel accept the Torah, it becomes good, if not, I will return you to chaos!” To be dragged before a barren mountain and abandoned in the midst of a howling wilderness without fulfilling the purpose of Creation hardly seems a reason to declare dayyénu!