Commentary on Parashat Shmini, Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47, Numbers 19:1 - 22
I currently serve as a chaplain in a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital. A patient of mine named “John” was recently discharged from the unit. As he was leaving, he told me that the time he had spent there was the first time in his life that he had felt truly free. I was dumbfounded when he said this, as John had been hospitalized on an involuntary, court-ordered, 14-day hold and had arrived kicking and screaming.
He explained to me, however, that he had come to see that despite the locks on the doors and windows, his time on the unit was the first time in his life he had ever been in a truly safe place. “The locked doors do not just keep patients in,” John told me. “They also keep violence out.”
Not All Limits Are Limiting
The sense of freedom that John experienced during his stay was not just about physical containment, but was also due to some of the limits placed on his time. The unit runs a full schedule of individual and group therapy. John had never experienced being listened to so intensely. The opportunity to be listened to compassionately by staff and peers made John feel free to express himself and begin to see his own worth and dignity. The rigid schedule actually liberated him and allowed room for healing.
John taught me that not all limits are limiting. Boundaries can also allow for safe space, sanctuary where healing can happen and human dignity can flourish. This is a message that is deeply embedded in Torah. In the Book of Leviticus, we are taught to build sacred boundaries in space through the Mishkan (tabernacle). We are instructed to establish boundaries in time through the observance of Shabbat. And, in this week’s Torah portion, we learn biblical dietary laws that set boundaries around what we eat.
Food & Values
In Parashat Shmini, we are taught to avoid eating many animals, including crawling insects, shrimp, hares, swine, bustards, storks, herons of every variety, hoopoes, and bats. We are told that sea creatures must have fins and scales, land animals must chew their cud and have true hoofs. No explanation for these apparently random biblical dietary laws is given.
Throughout Jewish history, our sages have puzzled over this mysterious portion looking for underlying principles. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and physician, suggests that this mystifying list of forbidden foods is based on principles of nutrition and reflects an awareness of the importance of the health and vigor of the human body as a sacred vessel.
Other classical medieval commentators, such as Seforno and Nahmanides, theorize that the point of these restrictions is to protect the spiritual (as opposed to physical) health of the people of Israel, to separate us from the other nations and to teach us gentleness toward creation.
What all these commentaries have in common is an acknowledgement that, whatever the rationale might be behind the laws of kashrut, what we eat has an impact on how we live and reflects our values. Creating boundaries in our eating teaches us to eat mindfully and to carefully weigh the impact of our food on our bodies, our communities, and the world.
In the Global South
In the contemporary global village, the Torah’s message to limit what we eat can and should include consideration of the impacts of our food choices on global social justice. The commercial coffee industry, for example, chronically underpays and mistreats workers in the Global South, and the low labor standards of the industry as a whole impact the well-being of entire economies in the world’s poorest countries. Purchasing non-fair trade coffee and other forms of produce picked by underpaid workers conflicts with this portion’s message to choose foods mindfully.
This portion challenges us to express our most intimate and deeply held values with every mouthful. It asks us to speak out against the exploitation of farmers and laborers in the Global South and to insist upon foods and drinks for our homes, our synagogues, and our workplaces that are traded fairly and that promote the values of the Torah–compassion and justice for all living creatures.
As my patient John taught me, limits are not always limiting. Limits create space for both individual and world healing. Boundaries around how we live and what we eat help to create a world where there is room for that within each of us that is truly limitless to safely unfold — our human dignity and our capacity for true freedom.
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.