Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Parsha Shemini: What I Learned From a Stork (Leviticus 11:19)

Studying the dietary laws is always of intrigue. Since it’s Parsha Shemini this week, we, of course, study these laws in Chapter 11 of Leviticus. When coming up to list of forbidden birds, I had to stop for a moment because I had always been under the impression that a bird that was non-kosher had that status because it was a bird of prey (Ramban). Because of their nature, we did not want to emulate that behavior. I’ve also read that land animals that have their cloven hooves and that chew their own cud tend towards kindness, which is something we should emulate.

I’ve always heard that as an explanation of why certain birds are not kosher, and I was surprised to see that the stork made the list. A stork isn’t a bird of prey. Quite the contrary! The word that is used for stork is חסידה, which is actually a homophone meaning “righteous [female] person.” I certainly was not the first person to realize the linguistic commonality. The Sages realized this centuries ago (Chulin 63a). They realize that it is called a חסידה because it acts with חסד (kindness) towards other members of its species.

If we “are what we eat,” and the חסידה is such a bird of compassion, why would G-d deem it to not be kosher? The Rizhiner Rebbe saw the Talmudic passage and pointed out that it was kind only to its own kind.  It’s easy to feel a special connection with family because they are kin. It’s easy to be kind to a Jew because he’s “another member of the tribe,” as it were. This is what the חסידה did, and for the חסידה, it was more instinctual for it to act in such way. The same goes for us.

Before we continue, I need to point out that the חסד of the חסידה was not some bubbly, flighty emotion. It was done through acts of giving. Through doing benevolent acts for others was the bird able to show kindness, at least to his own species. The action is important. When you perform an act of kindness for another person, you invest a part of yourself in that person. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler puts it,

“Giving may bring about love for the same reason that a person loves what he himself has created or nurtured: he recognizes in it a part of himself. Whether it is a child he has brought into the world [or] an animal he has raised…a person is bound in love to the work of his hands, for in it he finds himself. If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to whom he gives, he would realize that the only reason that the other person seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him. If I give to someone, I feel closer to him; I have a share in his being. It follows that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone I come in contact with, I would soon feel that they are all my loved ones.”

What does this all mean for us? In a multicultural, twenty-first century America, where the types of people are as diverse as species in the animal kingdom, many around us are “not like us.” What the Rizhiner Rebbe points out in analyzing this verse that acting with חסד to your kind only was not חסד at all. In order to have a life filled with חסד, you need to do so with all.

There is much to distinguish Jew from the Gentile. Jews have specific dietary rules, keep the Sabbath, keep their heads covered, don't mix wool and linen, I could go on for hours. And you know what?  Jews should and need to be proud of their heritage, traditions, and connection to G-d. But if we solely obsess over our distinctiveness incessantly, we forget about everybody else and isolate ourselves from everybody else (i.e., Gentiles) because they are “the other.” This is the very type of behavior that the Rizhiner Rebbe advised us against, and precisely why the חסידה is not deemed kosher. All human beings, whether Jewish or not, are created in His image. If it were just Jews that were “created in His image,” G-d would have declared that to Abraham, not Adam. Since He had declared that to Adam, Jewish tradition teaches that we are all G-d’s children. We all have hopes, dreams, worries, questions, ambitions, and a yearning to connect to a transcendent being (i.e., G-d). Although we have much to contrast ourselves from one another, we have much more in common. In order to express true kindness in the world, we need to remember the innate g-dliness in every human being.

To conclude, I have a video clip from the movie El Tren de la Vida. Aside from being the best musical duel I have ever seen in my entire life, it teaches an important lesson. Even though Jews and Gypsies are two very different groups of people, they get past their differences and we see them enjoying and rejoicing in what brings them together: their humanity.  ואמרו אמן!

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