The laws of Kashrut that appear in our parasha do not stand alone, but rather are connected to the Divine expectation of us to be a holy nation, and to the fact that Hashem chose us to be a treasured nation. The Torah, in its command of the mitzva of Kashrut and its relationship to holiness, describes this relationship in the following manner: “For you are a holy nation to Hashem your God, and God chose you to be his treasured people from among all nations on earth. You shall not eat any abomination. These are the animals that you may eat: the ox, sheep and goat; the hart, deer, yachur, akko, dishon, te’o and zamer. And each animal having a split hoof, completely separated into two hooves, (and) that brings up its cud – among animals – it you may eat.” (Devarim 14:2-6)
This relationship between holiness, kashrut, and our chosenness as a treasured nation, requires a thorough understanding, for that idea underlies the mitzva of kashrut.
The first possible approach to understanding the mitzva of kashrut is that it is a “chok” without reason (like the Parah Adumah), from the perspective that Hashem expects us to obey to Him without a question. The connection between keeping kashrut, our separation from all other nations and our holiness is reflected in the fact that we don’t question God’s commands, and that we are prepared to accept them despite some discomfort.
The second possibility can be found in the words of the Ramban, who explains that there is a relationship between the physical dimension and the spiritual dimension. According to his opinion, the foods that enter a person’s body influence his thoughts, his desires and his traits. Kosher animals are not predatory beasts, since the nature of predators will assimilate into a person’s body and transform it into a predator, lacking emotion and sensitivity. Thus, the words of the Ramban: “..to declare that all forbidden things desensitize the pure soul .. because forbidden, coarse foods cause the ‘thickening’ and opacity of the soul.” Ramban extends this line of thought in his explanation of the prohibition to cook a goat in its mother’s milk. “For us to be holy, and not to become a cruel nation, so lacking in mercy as to milk the mother, draw her milk and then cook the offspring in it.” As a holy nation, chosen by God, we stand guard against outside influences that flow from foods whose nature to integrate in us unworthy characteristics that would negatively impact our spiritual level. Keeping the laws of kashrut, according to Nachmanides, is not a “chok” but rather a condition of our retention of our status as a “holy nation” and a “treasured people.”
The third possible approach to explain the connection between the laws of kashrut and the holiness and chosenness of Am Yisrael, may be found not in the metaphysical plane as Ramban expounded, but in the practical domain. Because Hashem separated us from the other nations, there are practical, tangible consequences that can be seen. The laws of kashrut create a buffer between Jew and non-Jew. “Great is sipping, which draws people close together,” and to prevent this the Torah prohibits certain foods, thereby avoiding intimacy between the people of Israel and other nations. An expression of this idea can be found in Chazal’s decree (Shabbat 17b) “on the bread, oil and wine of idol worshippers (non-Jews) because of their daughters.” This decree does not stem solely from kashrut considerations, but from the desire to create a buffer and a separation. According to this notion, observing kashrut is a prerequisite to our continuation as a holy, chosen people – through our daily actions that emphasize this.
The final possibility that I would like to present regarding the relationship between the mitzva of kashrut and the holiness and chosenness of the nation has a profound significance for our times. In my opinion, one of the foundational ideas underlying the commandment of kashrut and all the detailed laws of kashrut is the notion that not all foods are permitted to be eaten, and not at every moment of desire to eat something is it permissible to eat it. That is, the principal concept is self-control over bodily desires and wants. The mitzva of kashrut is not given to us just to separate us from the rest of the nations, and not just to maintain our purity of thought and heart, but primarily in order to train ourselves in self-discipline on a daily basis.
The mitzva of kashrut is an educational mitzva of first-degree importance, one that sets boundaries that should help us develop our personalities. This idea is particularly essential to our generation and its challenges. Our generation was blessed with technology that grants us the ability to investigate, to know and to gather information. It helps us to achieve our desires with the push of a button. However, there are also less positive facets to the blossoming of technology, such as: the expectation for immediate answers, for information as soon as possible without thinking, filtering or information on the source of an answer we received. Additionally, with regard to the ability of technology to connect us and to enable us to enter all possible places, the need for self-control and moderation takes on double importance. Internalizing the concept that not every food has to be eaten, and not everything found on the internet must be read, and that not every need must be answered immediately, is due to education in self-discipline, from the ability to overcome “the moment” and “now,” and to understand that there is also “tomorrow” and “later.” The need to educate ourselves and our children in self-discipline, in limitations and in the understanding that “not everything is allowed to you or permitted to you” (paraphrasing the text of Hatarat Nedarim) will help us and them to blossom.
In the famous “marshmallow research” conducted by psychologist Prof. Walter Michel (Columbia University, born in Austria), children were brought into the laboratory were put to the test. He gave each child one marshmallow and said: “I’m going out now. Whoever waits until I return to eat the marshmallow, will get another one from me.” The children faced a dilemma: should they devour the sweet now, or refrain temporarily and earn another one? Some children succumbed to temptation while others resisted and were later rewarded with a second treat. The professor followed the children for decades and found a clear distinction: the children who demonstrated strong self-control succeeded more in all areas of later life.
Self-control grants the ability to fulfill goals, to actualize dreams and to be responsible for our actions. Self-discipline and self-control develop independent thinking and the ability to stand against the current, because a master of self-control is not especially affected by social or other pressures or trends. The ability to reject immediate gratification, to overcome momentary inclinations, will lead us to future achievements and successes. Judaism that believes not only “today” but especially “tomorrow” and “that day” trains us daily to self-control, not only to secure the present but to build a better and more secure tomorrow.