D’var Torah for Shemini

This is such a joyous day for Zachary and his family.  As a bar mitzvah, Zachary chanted from the Torah, taught us, and led us in prayer.  His insight into our Torah reading for today, Shemini, was important, for it speaks to something I would also like to address.  Let me begin this brief D’var Torah, however, someplace else.  You will see quite shortly, I hope, how this relates to our Torah reading.

          The five books of the Torah, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (from which Zachary read), Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain 304, 805 letters.  While I have not personally counted them, I have great regard for those who have.  I take their word for it.  These letters are employed to form 79, 847 words.  “According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), the precise middle letter of the Torah occurs in a verse from this week’s parashah (Leviticus 11:42), “You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on four, or anything that has many legs, for they are an abomination.”  The middle Hebrew letter in the Torah is the vav in the middle of the Hebrew word gachon, which means “belly.”  Isn’t that something?  The middle letter of the Torah appears in a word that refers to the middle of the human body?”[1]

          The dietary laws, which Zachary elucidated, are at the heart of Jewish religious life. For over 2,500 years, we have lived by these admonitions and, in some cases, died to keep them.  Perhaps the most well known example of the latter occurs in the Book of Fourth Maccabees, when Hanna witnesses the tyrant Antiochus put her seven sons to death for refusing to eat pork before she martyrs herself.   What we eat has always been central to Jewish religious observance.  Jews may not have always observed the dietary laws but we have taken them seriously.  Even today, the definition of a serious Jew is one who eats bacon and feels guilty. I know many Jews in this community, some of whom belong to Orthodox synagogues, who have three sets of dishes in their homes- one for dairy products, one for meat products, and one for crabs.  Did you know there is actually an asterisk that appears above a verse in this week’s Torah portion?  That’s right!  If you look at Leviticus 11:10 which says, “But anything in the seas or in the streams that has no fins and scales, among all the swarming things of the water… you shall not eat their flesh,” you will find an asterisk at the end of the verse.  When you look down at the bottom of the parchment it reads, “The Jews of Maryland are given an exemption from this rule.”  I trust you know I am not being serious.

          I am serious, however, about another verse in this Torah reading, a verse that signifies the main point of Torah and the very purpose of being Jewish. A verse in this same chapter eleven tells us (Leviticus 11: 44), “For I the Eternal am your God; you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy.”  What does it mean to be holy?  To separate ourselves from others and to strive to elevate all we do from the level of the ordinary to that of the Divine.  For the observant among us, that means a strict dietary regimen.  For the less observant, that means taking these dietary laws seriously and wrestling with their meaning and function in our lives.  This verse, though, speaks to us of something even more significant. 

          I am much more concerned about what comes out of our mouths than what we put into our mouths.  What we say and what we write, especially in this highly charged time when what we write in the social media can go viral within minutes, has lasting implications upon us and especially upon those about whom we speak.  What we say about another person can make them feel good or can seriously harm them.  Cyber bullying has led to the deaths of too many young people, critically wounded by what others have said about them.  Adults gossip and say cruel things about others, the implications of which are not immediately known.  We cannot take back what we say.  Once we utter something, whether verbally or in writing, it does not go away.  If we tear open a pillow, the feathers within fly throughout the sky, landing in places we cannot imagine.  It is similar with our words.   We never know who will hear and be affected by our words.  We can become holy by thinking before we speak, by constantly reminding ourselves that sanctification does not come only through what we eat but especially through what we say. 

          It is our prayer on this Shabbat that Zachary, his friends, and all of us, will strive to become holy in word and deed from this time forth and forevermore.



[1] Ten Minutes of Torah, April 20, 2012.

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