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Parashat Shemini: Caring for Our Sacred Soul

In Parashat Shemini, the Torah presents the basic guidelines regarding Kashrut, outlining which creatures are permissible and forbidden for consumption. This section begins with the words, "Zot Ha’haya Asher Tochelu" – "These are the animals which you may eat" (11:3).

Rashi, citing the Midrash, writes that the word "Haya" in this verse actually means "Hayim" – "life." He explains: "Since Yisrael are attached to the Almighty, and worthy of being alive, therefore, He separated them from impurity…" We have been elevated to a special spiritual status, whereby we are capable of "being alive" – meaning, earning eternal life in the next world. Therefore, G-d assigned us special laws which protect our souls from defilement. Rashi proceeds to reference the Midrash’s analogy to two patients suffering from the same condition who come to a doctor. The doctor tells one patient that he can eat anything he wants, but prescribes a strict diet for the second. He explains to the second patient that the first patient in any event will not recover from his condition, so he may eat anything he wishes, but the second can recover if he cares for his wellbeing. Similarly, the Midrash says, Am Yisrael has been granted a special soul which can be deserving of eternal life in the next world, and we must therefore guard and care for that soul by avoiding spiritually harmful foods.

Rav Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (1941-2020), former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, added that this explains the connection between this section, the laws of forbidden foods, and the other topics discussed in Parashat Shemini. This Parasha begins with a description of the events that took place on the day the Mishkan was inaugurated, when G-d took residence among the Jewish Nation. This marked the fulfillment of G-d’s promise back in the Book of Shemot (25:8), "They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall reside in their midst." The Shechina’s residence among Am Yisrael testifies to their elevated soul, to their special stature, on account of which G-d seeks to dwell among them.

Later in the Parasha, G-d presents the command forbidding the Kohanim from drinking wine before entering the Mishkan to serve. Rav Bakshi-Doron explains that this command was presented here as an introduction, of sorts, to the laws of forbidden foods. The effect that alcohol has upon a person’s mind and conduct demonstrates that food and beverages can impact a person not only physically, but also spiritually. At first, we might have wondered why a special dietary code is necessary for our spiritual wellbeing. After all, eating is a physical act, which affects only the body. Why do we need to refrain from certain foods to protect our soul? The Torah preempted this question by introducing the section of forbidden foods with the law prohibiting drinking wine before entering the Mishkan to serve. The fact that alcohol impairs a person’s judgment and leads him to act differently than he normally does, shows that food has an effect not only on the body, but also on the soul. And thus G-d gave us special restrictions on which foods we are allowed to ingest, to ensure that we carefully guard and protect our most precious and important possession – our sacred soul.

May we all remain cognizant at all times of this most precious asset, and see to it that we protect it, nurture it and cultivate it by devoting ourselves each day to Torah and Misvot, to the very best of our ability.

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