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Shemini – Is Your Food Kosher?

In Parshas Shemini we find the laws of Ma’acholos Assuros – the instructions about which animals are kosher and which are forbidden to be eaten. The Ramban gives a reason behind the prohibition to consume certain kinds of animals. He explains that every species has its innate characteristics and traits that are shared by all its members. The nature of a predatory animal is to be cruel and aggressive, whereas sheep, for example, are passive and gentle.

The Ramban informs us that these animals pass on these characteristics to those who consume their meat. One of the prime tasks of every Jew is to perfect his character traits, his middos. Eating the meat of creatures that possess negative characteristics is forbidden because it infuses a degree of those negative characteristics into the person, thus making the task of character perfection that much more difficult. For example, the principal defining feature of non-kosher birds is that they are birds of prey, which have sharp talons that tear their prey apart. This innately cruel behavior is the antithesis of the character perfection that the Torah demands of mankind, and so we are instructed to avoid eating these birds, lest ‘we become what we eat.’

There are sources that indicate that this concept extends much further. A couple of centuries back, the famous Chassidic work Agra Depirka pondered the tragic phenomenon of what we call nowadays ‘kids-at-risk,’ children who drop out of the educational system. Often, they adopt the most uncouth and unrefined behaviors and abandon religious practice and observance. How could it be, he wondered, that a child who learns earnestly the holy and elevating Torah can degenerate to the most coarse and uncivilized of personalities? The Torah learned by young children is pure and untainted by sin, and should alone have guaranteed that the child continue to grow in spiritual stature.

Undoubtedly, there are many factors involved in these occurrences, and every case is surely unique, but the Agra Depirka suggests one spiritual factor that one might want to consider. Could it possibly be that the parents of such children fed them spiritually contaminated food? Not that the food they served was not kosher; which parents would give non-kosher food to their children? Rather, the money that was used to purchase the food was tainted because it was ‘stolen money’ – money that came not necessarily from outright thievery, but from unscrupulous business practices.

Dishonesty creates destructive spiritual forces that exact a heavy toll upon the dishonest perpetrator, but it does not end there. The money becomes tainted, and even the food purchased with the money becomes polluted, to the extent that it has the power to breed bad middos in whoever eats it! And so it is that sometimes a father will cry in despair at his child’s spiritual degeneration, without realizing that it was his dishonest business dealings that triggered the downward spiral in the first place.

Fortunately, the Agra Depirka proposes a sort of antidote to this kind of spiritual poison. And its formula can be identified from a lesson regarding Pesach, the Yom Tov that we just celebrated. The Zohar teaches that in Egypt, the Jewish people broke bread with their Egyptian hosts, and with the Egyptian bread that they ate, they literally ingested the materialism, cruelty, and the other bad character traits of the ancient Egyptians. This in turn led to their spiritual downfall that made them vulnerable to enslavement by Pharaoh and his people. But the Geulah, the Redemption, came through the pure faith that the Jews had in Hashem’s salvation (Shemos 4:31). And so we see that in the merit of emunah, faith in Hashem, one can cleanse oneself of the adverse effects of spiritually contaminated food.

Particularly in the context of food purchased with ill-gotten gains, the emunah-antidote should prove especially effective because the toxin which poisons such food is nothing other than a most basic lack of emunah. Thievery at its core is an act of a disbeliever. One who has complete faith in Hashem will not be dishonest in his financial affairs because he knows that his sustenance comes from Hashem. True, one is expected to make hishtadlus, efforts towards one’s livelihood, but ultimately everything comes from Hashem’s blessings. So there is no point in trying to make the money for one’s bread through illegitimate means. Even if those means are successful, the sum will only be subtracted off the account that Hashem would have given anyway through legitimate resources.

So, let’s strengthen our emunah for our own sake and for the sake of our children. Let’s ensure that just as we strive to buy strictly kosher food, we also strive to buy the food with money that is just as kosher.

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