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A Man of Distinction

I remember a commercial back in the ’50s and ’60s for Muriel Cigars. The jingle sung by the actress Edie Adams Kovacs, in part went something like, “… the moment I walked in the room, I could tell you were a man of distinction, a real go-getter…”

In the world at large, many people have a notion or have heard that Jews have special dietary laws. For example, many non-Jews are aware that Jews, as part of their religious practice, don’t eat bacon, ham or other pork products. My non-Jewish friend and next-door neighbor, Joe, was invited once to our Friday night Shabbat dinner. My wife prepared an appetizer using kosher fish shaped to look like a shrimp. When the dish was set before him, he looked surprised and a bit confused. He asked, “ Rabbi, I thought you couldn’t eat shellfish!?” We brought out a package of the fish to show him he was right. We had a good laugh together.

Most Jews don’t know that there are many commands regarding eating. The Rambam lists 28 mitzvot, sprinkled throughout the Torah, that pertain to the general umbrella of “מאכלות אסורות,” prohibited foods. Four of the 28 are positive commands while the remaining 24 are restrictive. What is the reason that the Torah places such great emphasis on legislating what and how we eat?

In a word the answer is קדושה. This word is often translated as holy or spiritual but when I hear people use it this way, I am not sure what they mean. It is often used in the context of something mystical and again I find myself scratching my head trying to understand the explanation.

The Torah at the very end of this week’s reading, פרשת שמיני, gives us, what I think, is the appropriate understanding of the word קדושה. In doing so, the verses also shed light on the overarching idea behind the philosophy and benefit of keeping kosher. To be sure, the benefit is not physical or biological. If that were the case, every kosher-observant Jew should be able to purchase health insurance premiums at a reduced rate. Yet there are no actuarial statistics, at least that I am aware of, that identify any health advantage to keeping kosher.

Nor does eating non-kosher food poison or contaminate the body. In fact, there is a halachic dispute whether a person eating non-kosher food should say a blessing. After all, everything God created is good and serves a purpose. All agree, if you are eating non-kosher food for life-saving treatment a blessing should be said.

The term קדושה is applied to God. We are told in our פרשה, “… make yourselves קדוש because I (God) am.” What does the term קדוש mean when applied to God? It means God is a qualitatively different and unique existence. As we reflect twice daily in the שמע, God’s oneness is not like any oneness we know. In the Haftarah we read every fast day the prophet Isaiah states, “My thoughts are not like your thoughts and your ways are not like Mine, so says God. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways from your ways and My thoughts from your thoughts.” The comparison used by Isaiah directs us to the idea that God is qualitatively different in every conceivable way from any of His creations.

For an object to become קדוש, it must be used in a unique and special way. My Kiddush cup would not be a Kiddush cup if I also used it for beverages I drink while watching a baseball game on TV. People are animate objects within the animal kingdom created by God. How are we to distinguish ourselves from the other creatures in this group? Moreover, why should we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the animal world?

The appetitive instinct is necessary for survival and hence it is a component of every creature. But for man it also affords great psychological pleasure attracting human attention well beyond the need for survival. Man can exist as just another living creature or he can exist in a realm uniquely designed for mankind. How?

One way is by becoming a consciously discriminating eater. He must first observe the attributes of the permissible and differentiate them from the prohibited. The act of thinking causes us to distinguish between categories of foods we are permitted to eat and foods we can never eat. Even in the range of foods we are permitted to enjoy, certain combinations such as meat and milk are restricted.

But observation is not enough. The person must then act either eating or refraining from eating. Then the act of eating changes us internally. We become a different kind of man. A new status in the person is created. The person becomes transformed essentially but not in any mystical or spiritual way. The person becomes exactly what the Torah says he should be a “מבדיל,” “a discriminator.” By virtue of his thinking and then discriminating in what he eats, man becomes קדוש. Rather than being an impulsive creature as the rest of the animal world acts with regard to this powerful desire, man raises himself and becomes that special and unique creature he was designed to be.

At the very end of the פרשה, a Torah verse ties the keeping of kosher to the exodus from Egypt, the Pesach holiday we just finished celebrating. The Torah says, “For I am God Who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be a God unto you; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” Normally the Torah uses the expression “Who took you out of Egypt.” Here the Torah goes out of its way saying, “Who elevates you from the land of Egypt.” How does Judaism envision the elevation, the distinction, the uniqueness, the specialness in man be brought about? It is a two-step process. First by man engaging his mind in the realm of human desires. It is this tool man possesses which allows him to truly live as a human being. Second, placing his mind in charge of carrying out his very powerful desires and instincts. In this case, it is the mundane act of eating.

God’s plan for all people is that the mind must be used. Not only for abstract thought and reasoning but it must also be placed in service of every aspect of our lives no matter how basic and fundamental. When we harness our desires through the act of thought and discrimination, we are then individually on the path to becoming a true “man of distinction,” a קדוש and collectively an עם קדוש, “a distinct nation” to serve as “a light to all the nations.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan