Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

“What is your favorite thing to eat on Passover?” I asked a group of Religious School kids last week. “Matzah!” they cried almost in unison. And then the voices of clarification began to appear: “Actually, it’s matzah with peanut butter and jelly that I take to school for lunch,” one child said. “matzah brei for breakfast” another child countered. “French toast is out, matzah brei is in” he proclaimed. “I love chocolate-covered matzah the best,” another responded (and of course I had to agree with that brilliant child).

What makes Passover so special? Why is it the one holiday of the year when, according to sociologists, more Jews participate in some way than in any other holiday? Yes, it’s because it is so family-centered – but so are most holidays. Yes, it is because the Seder ritual is so exotic and unusual and interactive. But mostly it’s because of the food. That strange and wonderful, exotic and unique Passover food that only arrives once a year to grace our seder tables and stimulate our palates and prompts us to ask challenging questions and remind us that we are, indeed, part of an ancient and ever-surviving people.

Matzah and maror, haroset and parsley, hard-boiled eggs and sweet kosher wine, the bitter and the sweet, the slavery and the liberation – Passover is impossible to forget, for it is (as the sacred scripture says about all the mitzvot and ideas of Judaism) as close to us as our very mouths. We eat Passover and drink Passover and its various flavors linger on our palates and in our memories all year.

Jews and food are an inevitable combination. The idea that something that isn’t “kosher” is just not right has even slipped seamlessly into the English language. And it is in this week’s Torah portion that the Book of Leviticus lays out for us the traditional laws of what is permitted and what is forbidden for the Children of Israel to eat. It is this week that we learn that for an animal to be Kosher (meaning “fit” in Hebrew) it must have a cloven hoof and chew its cud, and that for a fish to be kosher it must have fins and scales.

This week the Torah takes the bold step of separating us from the rest of the world, declaring that we are a people apart, dedicated to holiness and bringing God’s spiritual challenges into the world. Our ancestors knew that if they wanted us to remain whole and together and unique as a minority community in the midst of an overwhelmingly larger majority culture, no matter where in the world we might be, that the single most powerful way to accomplish that goal was to establish dietary laws that prevented us from freely mingling with the rest of the world.

Simply put, if I can’t sit down and eat with you, there is little chance I will marry you and disappear into your culture or religious civilization either. Food is in many ways the essence of who we are – and on this festival of freedom and liberation from enslavement of all kinds, we are reminded that not only what we eat but how we eat and the way in which our food is produced, created, slaughtered and sold is a reflection of the holiness we seek to bring into the world.

Now that we are in the midst of the “counting of the Omer,” we are counting down the days from our liberation from slavery in Egypt to the revelation at Sinai. We anticipate that transformational moment in history when the Jewish people declared through the giving of the Ten Commandments that what we do and what we say matters to God. Our ancestors were wise enough to teach us, through the ethical expectations that Moses taught in the name of God, that as a people we need to be distinguished not only by what we put into our mouths, but even more importantly by what comes out of our mouths. The words we say to one another create the reality and very foundation of all our relationships and therefore of society itself.

Perhaps we can use this time of counting the days to Sinai to find one opportunity each day to say something that moves the world closer to becoming the loving, compassionate and caring community it was meant to be.

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