Rabbi's Weekly Article

One Man's Thoughts

Interesting thoughts on Kosher

My wife and I recently came back from a mini-vacation, well deserved I might add. While it was just a few days, it was refreshing and rejuvenating. I highly recommend it. While I went there for some R & R, I ended up learning much from this small coastal town.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the broad Chassidic movement once declared, “Whatever you encounter should be viewed as a lesson for you to better live your life.” So true! Each day was indeed an encounter with a life lesson.

The place we visited was not only chosen for its beauty, but also for the fact that there are kosher establishments for us to enjoy. When a “kosher Jew” goes on vacation to a place where there is no food, you end up overdosing on tuna fish and crackers. This place had kosher galore and we enjoyed an array of different foods, and none contained tuna.

As we were walking down the street, we noticed a restaurant sign that served falafel, shawarma, and hummus. There was a huge Star of David on the sign as well. Even though we had just eaten, we stopped at the open menu to peruse what other delicacies they served, and lo and behold on the second page, we noticed that they served shrimp. We started to walk away as this was obviously not a kosher establishment. The owner came running and in perfect Hebrew asked if he "can help.” I responded, “No thanks, zeh lo kosher – not kosher.”  He retorted back in Hebrew, “Hey, I run a very clean place.” I wondered to myself if this guy really thinks that the definition of kosher means clean. I have no idea, but it makes a great discussion as to what kosher is and is not.

The rules of kosher are many and they are primarily taken straight from the Torah. Here are a few highlights. Fish must have both fins and scales to be considered kosher and animals must have both split hooves and chew their cud and also be ritually slaughtered to ensure a quick end. Any fish or animals that do not have both of these signs, then are not only not kosher, we are also not allowed to drink its milk or consume its eggs either. Birds have no sign but are delineated in the Torah by name. We must also soak and salt our beef and poultry to remove the blood. Another biggie, we are not allowed to mix meat with milk under any circumstances. All vegetables are kosher but the leafy ones need to be thoroughly checked for infestation. There is so much more but we are short on time and space.

While it would be nice if every kosher and non-kosher establishment had a grade A on the placard in the window, having a B grade does not make it treif (non-kosher). Kosher does not mean clean, rather it means proper or fitting. This is why you hear the term kosher being used in non-food context. As an example, the term “this is not right” can be substituted with “this isn’t kosher.” Therefore, to equate kosher with being clean is wrong and is missing the point.
What is fascinating is that the Torah gives no reason as to why some animals are kosher while some are not. Likewise, there is no explanation offered as to why kosher beef and kosher cheese are fine when separate but not together. Cleanliness we can grasp with our limited intellect. However, kosher is beyond our finite understanding. We Jews follow it anyway, happily and with pride even though we do not understand the reason. Our philosophy is that God is a general and human beings are His foot soldiers, and a private in the army does not question the general’s orders. If one is a believer in a God, then if He says do not eat it, then who am I to question!
I am reminded of a sentence attributed to the famed ancient philosopher Socrates, “To know, is to know that you know nothing."

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Amazing Lessons from the Exodus from Egypt

The Bible/Torah is not a history book. If you wish to study the chronicles of the Jewish past, there are much better books to purchase or loan from the library. Likewise, the Torah is not a nonfiction novel. The best way I know how to describe the Torah would be its literal translation, to teach, as Torah means lessons or teachings. Viewing these sacred writings as simple stories misses the point and is on an elementary level. The problem of Hebrew schools is that they only go to a certain age and therefore the Torah is usually taught at a basic story level as entertainment. Every single story recorded in the Torah is not there to amuse, but rather to give us insight and inspiration in order to live a life with meaning.

The Torah devotes hundreds of verses to the “story” of the Exodus. Each verse literally contains a wealth of information beyond the literal story line. I will attempt to capture just a few of the brilliant, deeply psychological and highly inspirational insights and teachings.

In the Passover Haggadah, there is a paragraph that begins with, “We are obligated to recall our going out of Egypt every single day of our lives.” What does this even mean? Do we need to think about walking out of Egypt into the desert every morning or is afternoon enough? You have probably read this a dozen times and never thought about it.

One of the most beautiful explanations that answers this has to do with our definition of Egypt. If we view Egypt simply as a geographical place on the map, then bringing it to mind every day seems silly, unless, of course, you are invested in the Egyptian stock market. However, if you view Egypt as a psychological state rather than a physical one, then there are lessons to be gleaned from the exodus.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim,” which literally means “limitations.”
We all have our limitations. Some are self-imposed and some are imposed by others. We also have fears and phobias which prevent (limits) us from fulfilling our potential. Then there are toxic people who have hurt us terribly, and we obsess over them and cannot move on from the pain. I would be remiss if I did not mention our childhood scars caused by some dysfunctional event that we cannot seem to get beyond and is holding us back from living. All the above-mentioned scenarios are classified as psychological Egypt. We are restrained and controlled by our feelings, thoughts and emotions. We are incarcerated in our own bodies and are slaves to the whims of negative thoughts.
Comes along the Haggadah, which declares: Wake up! You are destroying yourself from the inside out. You are allowing people to live in your brain rent-free. It is high time you live to your full potential and stop letting others dictate your destiny. Don’t let anyone be in control of you, and never be a slave to your or anyone else’s negative thoughts. It is not enough for one to give oneself an Egypt well being check up once in a while. Rather, you have to be vigilant every day to assure that negative habitual thinking does not rear its ugly head as it has done in the past.          

Likewise, slavery should not be relegated to one definition as defined by Webster’s dictionary: “The state of a person who is held in forced servitude.” When we think of “forced servitude,” we think of people who were mercilessly sold on a butcher’s block in chains, against their will.

One of the Torah’s teachings is to clarify that forced servitude can also be where you feel stuck because you are not in control of your life. Take for example the scenario that I hear often from some of the women I know. “My husband is so busy helping his company be stable financially, that he is unable to help me physically let alone emotionally.” The bottom line, If you find that your work gets in the way of normal living as a human with a soul, and you are unable or unwilling to do anything about it, then you my dear friend are a slave, as you are not free and most definitely not in charge of yourself and your life.

I often quote the following litmus test of whether you run your work or your work runs you. If you can stop what you are doing and get yourself to your child’s play or sports game on time without regret or rancor then you run your life. However, if you say to yourself, “I need to meet with so and so and then I will go, or when I finish the final draft, I will close up the office,” you need to know that you are trapped and have become a contemporary slave to your boss, computer, printer and cellphone.

The mystical book of Tanya asks one to ponder the following thought process. I have taken the poetic license to elongate the process.

Q. Why do you work?
A. To make money

Q. Why do you need to make money?
A. To buy the things that are needed.  

Q. What things do you need to buy?
A. Shelter, food, water et al.

Q. Why do you need all that?
A. To live.

The Tanya concludes, ultimately, you are not working for money, you are working to live. Therefore, if that very work disrupts you from living, then things have become topsy-turvy, your priorities have been usurped, and the tail is wagging the dog!

Do not be a slave to anyone or anything. Try to stay free.
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Don't ask why, Ask what for - Another way of looking at suffering

There is a phenomenal portion of the Torah where Joseph just revealed to his brothers that he is in fact their brother. As a quick tutorial, the brothers sold their own brother into slavery 22 years earlier out of extreme jealousy. They literally could not stand him. So much so, at one point they were thinking of assassinating him. Instead, they opted not to be murderers and they sold him instead.

Fast forward 22 years later, Joseph had risen miraculously from slave to prince of Egypt. He was placed in charge of the Egyptian economy, which was in the midst of a severe recession that affected much of the region. The brothers went south from Israel to Egypt in the hopes of procuring food and rations. It is at that moment their long-lost brother Joseph recognized them. To make a long story short, at some point Joseph stopped the façade and told them that he was their brother.  

After Joseph shared with his brothers that indeed he is very much alive and is now the viceroy of the country, the brothers were taken aback. They were embarrassed, mortified, and humiliated. It was at this moment Joseph said the following magical words, “You did not sell me to Egypt, but rather God sent me here.”

Powerful words.

He basically told his brothers that all his hardships and pain was because God needed him to be in Egypt.  A student of psychology would argue that Joseph was numb and had lost all his feelings and common sense due to his trauma and he therefore adopted this attitude of denial. The Torah debunks this by showing us that Joseph was very much not numb and lists eight times where Joseph cried bitterly. I have not cried that many times in my whole adult life, while Joseph sobbed eight recorded times in a matter of a week. He was very much in touch with what happened and yet, he still mouthed that he was not sold, but rather sent.

You see the difference between being sold vs. sent is huge. Sold means that you were taken against your will, treated worse than an animal and placed in captivity to serve a master who may or may not mistreat you. Just think of the shameful African slavery and the pain and trauma that is still viable.

Sent, on the other hand, means that you are completely and respectfully trusted by individuals or communities to perform certain tasks. In fact, you were chosen to be sent because in my/our estimation, you are the BEST person for the job. We send a representative to congress to fight for us as an example. Joseph was stating that he was sent by the ultimate being, master of the world, creator of the universe, Almighty God on a most sacred mission. Joseph was awestruck that God chose him as opposed to anyone else to fulfill His wants and needs. It is for this reason I say it is powerful.

In Hebrew, we have a word called “Lamah,” which literally means WHY. Lamah, did you marry him? Lamah, do you never take out the garbage? This word is spelled with just three Hebrew letters L M H, which are combined with vowels in the guise of dots and dashes so that we pronounce it correctly.
Now if we take these same three letters L M H and change just one vowel, the word changes from Lamah to L’mah. While this does not change the way this word is written, as the three letters are static, it does drastically change its meaning. Lamah means WHY but L’mah means FOR WHAT. Understand the difference?

When one is trying to ponder life’s obstacles one could take either of these two approaches. Why (LAMAH) is this happening to me, or one can say For What (L’mah) is this happening. Why is a good question but often there are no answers. For what on the other hand is seeking meaning in something that is bothering us and causing us aggravation. For what purpose am I stuck in my own personal Egypt? For what purpose was I created? For what purpose was I sent to Dix Hills?

While we may not have all the answers to life’s suffering, we still need to find meaning and purpose of the pain and misery.  
As a Jew and student of the Torah and Kabbalah, it is very clear that whatever happens to any one of us is not random or happenstance. There is a purpose to everything we see and hear. In fact, CNN once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the spot for a quick message to the world. The Rebbe responded without missing a beat, “Whenever two people meet, it should benefit a third.” What the Rebbe is saying is that when two people meet, it is not a random encounter but rather there is a much deeper meaning to this union of two seemingly random humans. Powerful.

The bottom line is this. Every person reading these few paragraphs were meant to read it, and likewise, I was meant to write it. You know this morning when I woke up, I had no idea what my weekly article would be about. It was only when I turned on the computer and opened Word that this idea began to form. I believe it was not random.
As we are all here to fulfill a purpose, let me not take up any more of your time as the point has been made.

Go take on the day.

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