Think about the fact that the Torah was originally a heard, not read, set of stories and instructions. Good storytellers use all sorts of techniques to make sure their stories are remembered and retold. One of those ways is a short of shorthand, references that remind their audiences about other stories – the ones they’ve heard a lot. These are tropes in the minds of the audience, and when you read….or rather, hear Torah with that in mind, interesting things come to light.
I can’t take full credit for this one; you know I have my Tuesday Torah group, and we came up with some pretty remarkable stuff when we were studying Shemini, this week’s parasha.
Starting with Chapter 11 of Leviticus, we read all about the laws of Kashrut – what’s kosher, what’s not. The detail is incredible; characteristics of mammals, water creatures, “winged, swarming creatures”. We are not to eat animals that have died on their own or been killed by other animals. These are impure, and will make those who partake of these foods impure. In fact, even the vessels that hold impure food become impure.
Torah categorizes, and so do we. God puts forth the overriding principles of the entire book of Leviticus: distinctions and discernments. Leviticus is constantly making distinctions between things, telling the difference between others, making lists and more lists.
Just like Genesis – just like Creation. Day by day, one day at a time, in a very specific order, the world came into being. The world was populated by lists of animals. Like this section of Leviticus, Creation is a highly structured tale, and I would think the storytellers would know their audience would recognize the similarities. Both tales contain instructions on what to do, and what not to do – does a particular tree in the Garden come to mind?
Genesis ordered our world; Leviticus orders our community. It gives us a way to live in a holy way, for what else is holiness if not making distinctions? We distinguish between what is pure and impure, what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. And the only way to make distinctions and make choices is to be aware. We have to be present. We have to be intentional. We need to pay attention. God wanted us to pay attention to what’s in the world, what’s around us, right from the beginning, starting with permissible food in the Garden. Now, in Leviticus, we also have to pay attention to the world, too, what is permissible food and what isn’t. But this time, the distinctions keep us apart, as a community. We don’t eat what the other folks eat.
The laws of Kashrut teach us how to live – how to survive, actually, literally by what goes into our boies to keep us alive –with intention and discernment. Some may keep a more traditional kosher, or eco-kosher, or eat differently at home and away, or stay away from ham sandwiches, or not consider kashrut at all. The point is, in a Leviticus way, through a Jewish lens, there are foods chosen and foods avoided. At our core as a community, we are told to pay attention.