Parshat Shemini

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Rabbi Goldberg has had a secret longing all his life to taste a forbidden food … pork. Finally, after many years of internal struggle, he can no longer control himself and decides to give in to his desires. He travels to Europe, far from his hometown and takes a seat in a Michelin starred restaurant. His heart beats with excitement as he scans the menu and as this will be a one-off breach of the kosher laws he decides to gorge himself on an entire roasted suckling pig.

Having made his order he sits back and waits patiently for his meal to arrive. Eventually he sees the waiter leave the kitchen and head for his table holding a large tray covered with a polished silver dome. But horror of horrors … he suddenly sees two members of his shul executive staring through the restaurant window, looking at him in shock. They enter the restaurant and walk towards him, arriving at his table just as the waiter is uncovering the offending dish. The aroma of the treife delicacy wafts into the air, as the deceased piglet is revealed to all, surrounded by roast vegetables and with a rosy apple in its mouth.

Rabbi Goldberg panics, his heart races as he wonders how to extricate himself from this mess. After what seems like an eternity he spreads his arms wide, turns to his visitors and exclaims in wonder: “Would you believe it? Just look how they serve an apple in this country!”

We read in the parsha this week about the kosher and non-kosher animals, birds and fish. Kosher animals have two clear signs – they chew the cud and they have fully split hooves. Some non-kosher animals have neither of these signs, and some have only one, but there is only one animal which has fully split hooves but does not chew the cud … the pig.

It may be this uniqueness which has raised the pig in popular Jewish opinion to the level of most non-kosher of all creatures, or it may be simply that it is seen as an animal with dirty living habits … but in reality pig is no more treif (non-kosher) than a whole list of non-kosher creatures. I constantly meet people who will delight in all kinds of culinary transgressions, yet eating pork is a red line they will not cross, and I wonder why. These people eat frogs’ legs, oysters, lobster, shrimp and the like with gusto, but will balk at a bacon rasher. I meet people who are quite happy not to keep any of the other mitzvot in the book, but when it comes to gustatory pleasures of a porcine variety they say no.

As a rabbinical student in Melbourne, Australia I spent some time for Yomtov visiting small communities in the region. On one visit to the (French territorial) islands of New Caledonia I met a warm Jewish couple and their young children. They introduced their little daughter to me, and asked her to tell me about being Jewish in her local school. She stood tall and said to me very proudly, “Moi, Je ne mange pas de porc! — I don’t eat pork there.” After I left their home, the conversation stayed with me for a long time, and I wondered about this young girl, proud to show her Jewish affiliation to her classmates by not eating le porc. Why was this so defining for Jewish people, I wondered.

Being “holier than thou” is an easy trap to fall into for those who practice a faith. It is a normal tendency to always feel that the level of observance we have chosen is the right one, and is perfectly balanced: Anyone more religious is meshugge and anyone less religious is a heretic. For those who do keep some or all of the mitzvot, it is incredibly easy to look at those who keep only a small number of mitzvot as hypocrites. “Look at them, they don’t keep anything else but they turn up for Kol Nidrei … hypocrites!” Or in our scenario, “They eat treif but they don’t eat pork … hypocrites.”

Is it hypocrisy to keep the one or two mitzvot that are important to you or your family?

The rabbis tell us that there is something we can learn from the fact that the pig is the only known animal with split hooves which does not chew the cud. The pig lies with its hooves visible saying, “Look at me, I am kosher,” yet it knows it is not, the ultimate act of hypocrisy. They tell us to beware of this behavior and to shy away from hypocrisy and deception. If we are doing something wrong we need to be aware of where our flaws lie, not to fool ourselves or others that we are holy, by displaying our “split hooves.” We may not fix all our flaws straight away, but awareness is a long way towards that goal.

So hypocrisy and deceit are out, but what about our previous question? Is it hypocrisy to eat the cheeseburger but not the bacon?

The answer, of course, lies in the mind of the individual.

If the avoidance of pork is to put on a false show of Jewish identity, yes it is hypocrisy. But if the keeping of that one mitzva comes from the heart, if it is a genuine attempt to do what is right, then we must recognise and respect it as such. For the little French girl proud to be Jewish on an island with maybe a hundred Jews, that mitzva is a huge one, and one we should find inspirational. Judaism is not a package deal, all or nothing. Each and every mitzva we do is a separate credit, each and every sin we commit is a separate debit. For the observant and traditional Jew, avoiding treif food or attending shul for Kol Nidrei is second nature. For the unaffiliated or less observant, every single mitzva is a conscious decision and should be recognised as such.

One day hopefully we will all observe all of the mitzvot. Meanwhile, until we get to that point we need to cherish every individual mitzvah we see others doing as a positive step forward – another Divine commandment achieved —  because every single mitzvah is like a precious gemstone to G-d. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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