Sermon: Cleanliness is Next to Godliness (Shemini Parah) (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

There is an old joke.  Moses is up on Mount Sinai and God is conveying the text of the Torah to him.  They get to the part that says “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” and Moses looks up and says, “By this I assume you mean we should not eat meat and milk dishes at the same time.”
“No,” replies God, “I simply said, ‘Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”
“OK,” says Moses, “So you mean we should have separate dishes for meat and dairy.”
“No,” says God, “I mean, ‘Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”
“Fine,” says Moses, “So you mean we should wait six hours after eating meat before we can eat any type of milk product?”

“Moses” said God.  “Hear what I’m saying to you: do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!”

“Ok God, I get it I get it!  You don’t have to yell!  What you’re saying is that we need to have two sets of everything, pots, pans, dishes, cutlery, serving utensils… maybe even sinks… and if we accidently mix them up, then we should burry the item in the dirt to purify it!”
“Alright, Moses,” God sighed, “just do whatever you want.”

In this week’s portion we read the first laws of Kashrut. Granted, it’s not the part about boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, but it is the first time that we hear about what we are and are not permitted to eat.  We learn about the laws regarding eating land animals, the laws regarding eating creatures of the sea, we find out which birds are not Kosher, and that all kinds of bugs are off limits.  And why all of these dos and don’ts of eating?  Well, according to our portion, it’s all about emulating God.  “For I the Eternal am your God;” it says “you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).  Apparently, the food that we put into our bodies contributes to our overall holiness.  This seems like a pretty clear cut issue.  Eat these things, and you will be pure, eat those things, and you will be impure, and purity leads to holiness. It is not until we look a little bit deeper that we can see that this issue is not so black and white.  The first thing that we must ask ourselves is what does it mean to be holy?  Well, it seems that it is about treating ourselves, treating our bodies, as the holy vessels that they were intended to be.  It is aspirational.  It is about recognizing that the food that we put into our bodies has a lasting impact on our whole selves.  So yes, on a basic level it is about eat this and you will be pure, eat that and you will be impure, but it certainly doesn’t stop there.

The word kasher means fit, apt, appropriate.  It is about eating the food that is fit to serve a holy being, and so how can it just be about eat this, not that?  Is it appropriate to feed ourselves salt-laden, greasy, highly processed foods that happen to have a kosher label on them?  Is it appropriate to snack on chemically laced, factory produced convenience items while racing in our cars to our next appointment?  Is it appropriate to deprive ourselves of proper nutrition, and yes, the pure enjoyment of eating, in order to force our bodies into some sort of media-created physical ideal?  Is it appropriate to eat animals that have been abused and mistreated, even though they were slaughtered under rabbinic supervision?  Is it appropriate to eat food from companies who abuse and mistreat their employees?  And is it appropriate to eat with anger and disdain, to ignore our loved ones, instead of using our meal times as an opportunity to connect to our friends and family?  These questions all go much deeper than split hooves and the chewing of cud, and yet they all speak to the same issue – treating ourselves, treating our bodies, treating our world, with the utmost care and respect – care and respect befitting holiness.

As always, the messages in our Torah line up beautifully with our calendar.  This Shabbat is a special one.  It is one of the four Shabbatot during the year that either follow or anticipate a major holiday.  This week is both the Shabbat after Purim, and the first Shabbat that begins our preparation for Pesach.  Let’s think about that for a second – Purim is a time of frivolity and over indulgence, and just as we are recovering from it, we begin the stringent work of readying our homes and bodies for Passover.  We go from one extreme – eating and drinking with somewhat reckless abandon, to the most restrictive diet of our year.  Just as we, in our Torah, begin to learn about what we can and can’t eat, we, in our own lives, begin the process of cleaning out all that is not kosher for this festival.  It’s as if we’re getting a little biblical nudge – we are being reminded of the basics of kashrut, so that we can remember to start thinking about it even more precisely in the weeks to come.

The rules about pesach are fairly clear – in order to commemorate that the Israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to let their bread rise, we avoid all food that contains chametz.  Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains – wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt – that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after first coming into contact with water.  It may seem complicated, but this truly is black and white – don’t eat chametz, do eat everything else.  It should be a very simple rule to follow… but… as we know, depending on your ancestry, the customs of the land, and the various interpretations of the law, there are many nuances.  Many Jews won’t eat corn, rice, legumes… anything that could be made into flour, while some won’t even eat anything that may have possibly come into contact with something that could possibly be made into flour…even though there is no legal injunction against flour, only against allowing that flour to rise.  Some won’t eat anything that doesn’t have acheksher on it – even if the ingredients themselves are fully kosher.  Some won’t use soap, shampoo, cleaning products, take medications, or feed their pets anything that hasn’t been deemed fully kosher l’pesach.  This is all done in the name of being exact, of building a fence around Torah – making sure that there’s no margin of error… and yet, the more nuances there are, the more complicated it becomes, the greater the possibility is of slipping up and making a mistake.  In our attempts to be pure, our attempts to be holy, we end up putting many roadblocks in our own paths.

It is no mistake though, that the extra Torah portion set aside for this special Shabbat is the story of the Red Heifer.  This strange narrative is also all about purity – it is the description of a ritual that our ancient ancestors were to use to purify themselves after coming into contact with a dead body.  This ritual involves finding an anomaly, a perfectly monochromatic red heifer that is free of any kind of blemish, slaughtering it, burning it, mixing its ashes with water, and then sprinkling this water on the unclean person twice within a seven day period. This practice was particularly important during Temple times, as everyone needed to be ritually pure before the pilgrimage festivals – Shavuot, Sukkot, and Pesach.  Why was this the specific process named?  Well, the fact is… we don’t know.  This law is an example of something called a hok – a biblical law for which there is no apparent logic, and so we understand it to be simply Divine will, of purely Divine origin.  If we accept this explanation, then it must figure that God not only wanted us to be ritually pure, but also to go to a great deal of effort to become so.  It is not easy to find a cow who does not possess a single hair of a colour other than red, not to mention one that has no blemishes, is at least 2 years old, has not had calves itself, and has never farmed or done physical labour… and even if such a creature is found, to then slaughter it, burn it, mix it with water and then sprinkle that water on the unclean person twice in one week isn’t exactly a straightforward task.  The message here?  Purity is important…. But it certainly isn’t easy or clear cut.

So how does this all come together?  And, more importantly, how does it all relate back to that joke?  It all comes down to cleanliness, purity and holiness… and the fact is that there’s no perfect answer.  There’s no black and white – Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who thought that they were making a proper sacrifice in our parsha this week got it wrong.  Yes, they created sacrificial fire, but it was alien fire – not quite what they were supposed to do.  The foods that we are told to eat and not to eat may make up the basics of our dietary laws, but depending on who you are and what you value, kashrut can mean something very different to each person.  Pesach, a time when there seem to be very clear cut, black and white rules about what we can and can’t do has areas of grey… even the red heifer, whose sacrifice is meant to purify everything, is a complicated process, and then once the process is complete, the one who performs this complex ritual is himself considered to be  unclean, and has to go through another process of purification… and dear old Moses (who in this case is a stand-in for the rabbis of old) took God’s black and white rule not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk and infused it with his own interpretations, his own, albeit exaggerated, shades of grey.  So what’s the point then?  If these laws simply can’t be followed perfectly every time, if they leave room for failure after failure after failure why do they even exist?  Why do we bother?

They exist BECAUSE of the opportunity to fail, for without that opportunity, we would never have the chance to try again, try harder, do better.  If our laws were straightforward, if they were easy to comply with – if purity could be attained by simply avoiding this or that, then there would be no reason for us to put in the effort.  We wouldn’t have to think about it, we wouldn’t have to try – it would all just come naturally…and then we would all miss the point… and the point, is that purity and holiness are an ongoing, lifelong journey.  It is not the perfect compliance with laws that makes us holy, but the work, the practice, the thought, and the mindfulness that truly makes us holy.  We have to remember to remember – meaning that being good to ourselves, treating ourselves as holy vessels is a daily exercise.  It doesn’t come naturally or automatically.  It takes effort.  The laws that we are given in our holy Torah are not meant to be black and white, and they are not meant to be easy…nothing in life really is…  but they are meant to be a guide, a roadmap.  We are not meant to blindly follow them to the letter, we are meant to think about them, be aware of them, and do our best to understand their purpose.  None of us are perfect, none of us could ever follow all 613 commandments flawlessly every time… but all of us are holy, and all of us have the potential to honour, respect, and enhance our own holiness.  All it takes is a little bit of thought, some trial and error, and a lot of awareness.