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Parsha Parah Shemini

Kosher. It’s Torah’s guide to G-d’s diet, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry of approved products, and it’s the pride of our globally respected Beth Din standards (and Darren Sevitz’s instant Facebook responses).





 Rabbi Asher Deren
Chabad of the West Coast


Kosher. It’s Torah’s guide to G-d’s diet, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry of approved products, and it’s the pride of our globally respected Beth Din standards (and Darren Sevitz’s instant Facebook responses).

In our South African community the definition for anyone’s declaration that “we’re kosher!” could stretch anywhere from the basic separation of meat and milk in the home (but we “eat out”) to the faithful observance of Chalav Yisrael, Pat Yisrael and other halachic qualities of the highest standards.

But, as the Oxford Dictionary points out, kosher today also means “genuine and legitimate.” And that just isn’t about the food on our plate or ingredients in the Jelly Tots.

The debate for us as a community quickly flourishes in to any and every space of the Jewish communal life from learning programmes, guest speakers, social events, and on and on – and then even in our own home, whether it’s reading material, unfiltered Internet, the clothing we wear, or even the conversations we have, the question is asked again and again: Is it truly kosher?

This week we are studying the Torah’s laws of kashrut, and there’s an astounding insight in to one of the basic laws of kashrut, of fish specifically, that can perhaps help serve as a broader definition for what kosher is.

Fins and scales, the biblically mandated kosher fish signs, are the subject of a Talmudic analysis in the tractate of Chulin which asks the obvious question (for anyone familiar with the basics of biological marine life); any fish that has scales, has fins, so why not just say kosher fish is any fish that has scales – and the fins will obviously be there as well?

And the Talmud answers that the extra reference to fins is “to make Torah great and glorious”. What does that mean?

Fish as a whole are analogous of our inability to separate from our “water” – the Torah. Just as a fish is inextricably linked to the sea, a Jew is by his or her very definition linked to Torah.

And what keeps that connection kosher? Scales – and fins…

Scales are there as a protective armour, an added layer of protection that we as guardians of the tradition of Sinai need to ensure through our faithful adherence to the standards and G-d-conscious principles that our ancestors received from Moshe at Sinai.

Fins are our engine, moving us through the rapid changes of time and empowering us to remain ahead of the curve, on the cutting edge of society and technology, as we constantly reaffirm the relevance and contemporary meanings of Torah to everyday life in 2014.

True, Torah from within its very essence expresses that relevance – the fins of our constant movement through the rapid changes of history and into modern life. But by including it as a specific quality, we highlight the importance of our “fins”, our desire to make Torah life relevant and attractive, being kosher as well.

Just as the protective scales in our “traditional” observance of authentic Yiddishkeit is kept to the highest standards of kosher, the sleek and shining fins of a trendy and fashionable Jewish life that we as a South African community are so blessed to enjoy, must also express that same level of kashrut.

And then, and only then, can our glide through these beautiful waters be truly great and glorious.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Israeli

    Mar 20, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    \”…… trendy and fashionable Jewish life that we as a South African community are so blessed to enjoy\”

    Rabbi, these are very nice words, but I feel to see how anything or any action performed by Jews in exile  can be blessed to enjoy.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of Blessed memory reminds us that at \”always a Jew (in exile) should feel deep pain and remorse that he is living in exile away from his Homeland\” (Likutei sichos vol 30 p234). Exile is the ultimate punishment, and there is no way that any action, no matter how ‘kosher’, a Jew performs can be blessed to enjoy.

    Otherwise a very inspirational \”shiur\”

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In the brave steps of Abraham



In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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My kind of hero



The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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Learning to fall teaches us to fly



“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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