Thousands of years ago, Judaism recognized the essential significance of food in the Jewish and human experience. Originally, without explaining “why” we should eat some, but not all types of different foods, the Torah in this week’s portion, Sh’mini (Leviticus 11), laid down a lengthy list of culinary dos and don’ts, the textual foundation of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice and law. The Rabbis greatly expanded on this topic and today there are a variety of expressions of kashrut.
The double portion, Tazria/M'tzora, discusses the priests' treatment of various skin ailments. It demonstrates a positive relationship between Judaism and medicine that has developed throughout the centuries.
For the last few years, I have been a member of a local hospital’s ethics committee. The hospital is part of a university-based system and the committee’s chair is a scholarly pulmonologist with a propensity to pick cases involving life and death choices.
In Parashat Emor, the Torah reports that a man born of mixed Israelite-Egyptian descent “blasphemed the Name [of God],” was placed on trial, and was stoned to death. A law was then enacted that anyone, Jewish or gentile, who blasphemes the name of God shall be put to death. Over time, in communities throughout the world, laws against blasphemy were put in place to address curses leveled at God as well as perceived slights against some religions.
We read about Amalek in Parashat B’shalach. As the first to attack the Israelites once we are freed from Egypt and wandering through the desert, Amalek gains some level of notoriety. In M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Eliezer of Modi’in suggests this is due to the tactics Amalek used in the attack. “Amalek ‘sneaked’ under the edges of the cloud and snatched the souls of Israel and killed them,” (as the Torah hints later in Deuteronomy) — “When you were weary and worn out, [Amalek’s army] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God” (M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Amalek, on Exodus 17:8).
Parashat Mishpatim offers a myriad of rules to guide us in how to treat other individuals and nations. It makes us wonder: Why is it easier to think and behave humanely when we consider individuals rather than nations?
Parashat T’rumah provides precise instructions on how to build the Mishkan and its contents. But those guidelines, like the design for the Temple menorah, have been interpreted in various ways throughout the ages. What does this teach us about the nature of communication?
In Parashat Eikev, we read: “A human being does not live on bread alone…” (Deut. 8:3). Found on inspirational posters, T-shirts, and in the titles of a great many cookbooks, this short statement constitutes one of the most well-known phrases from Eikev and from the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole. The phrase has come to mean that mere physical sustenance is not sufficient for a life of fulfillment; rather, people need and desire spiritual and cultural nourishment as well. Many Jewish commentaries have noted that, in context, this phrase actually insinuates close to the opposite of our conventional understanding; rather, that human beings can survive on things other than bread.