Parashat Shemini: The sanctity of life

Parashat Shemini: The sanctity of life

Rabbi Miriam Midlarsky Lichtenfeld

Director of Education, Orangetown Jewish Center, Conservative

Back in my teen years, at our pre-prom gathering at my friend’s house, I didn’t eat any of the shrimp cocktail that she had put out for us. I was surprised by how much she praised my self-discipline. To me, though, this seemed natural, as this was an essential part of our religious tradition and the way I had always practiced kashrut.

One thing that defines us as Jews is the requirement to give thought to what we put in our mouths. This act of restricting our eating can help us work towards creating a world where we show respect for the sanctity of life helping create an ideal expressed in the Torah.

Originally, the Torah’s ideal was for us to be vegetarians. In the creation story, humans are allowed to eat only fruits and vegetables: “God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29-30)

After the flood, Torah compromises by allowing us to eat meat. As imperfect beings who also need protein, God permits us to have meat. Yet, since eating requires the act of taking another’s life, restrictions of what animals we are allowed to eat are enacted.

Our parsha, Shemini, lists the restrictions for what animals we are permitted to eat, and the more complex the life form, the more constraints are put in place. So, the simplest life forms — fruits and vegetables — have no stipulations. Fish have only one restriction — that they have fins and scales. By contrast, the most complex level of life — cattle, sheep, etc. — have the most rules.

They must chew their cud, have cloven hooves, and be slaughtered using shechita, ritual slaughter, which ensures a quick and painless death.

These laws teach us that respecting the sanctity of life should be our highest ideal. One way to do so is by restricting when we take a life to sustain ourselves, and when we do so we should do it in the kindest and least impactful way. This year is a shemittah or sabbatical year which requires us to take kashrut even further, as we are required (in Israel) to not farm the land.

Thus, in Israel, people also have to think about how they get their fruits and vegetables. Although we don’t have that requirement here, the shemittah year is a time when we can rededicate ourselves to the mission of assessing our diet for how well we honor the sanctity of life as well the impact we make on the planet.

I challenge us all to think of ways to work to live up to this ideal. In order to sustain ourselves, we have to take the lives of others (even if we are vegetarian). Let us all think carefully before we eat about whether we are choosing foods that honor that sanctity. We can do so by considering how animals are treated throughout the supply chain and how the fruits and vegetables we eat are farmed, along with the impact these decisions have on our planet. We can also try to grow more of our own food, and dedicate ourselves to eating less meat. When eating meat, we should try to commit to only eating humanely raised and processed foods. We may know that all lives on this earth are sacred and that we need to be kinder to the earth, but in the busyness of life, it is easy to allow convenience to reign supreme. Shemittah offers us a reminder to re-evaluate and rededicate ourselves to these higher ideals. In doing so, we will remind ourselves of the sanctity of all lives and help to create a more ideal world.

Rabbi Miriam Midlarsky Lichtenfeld teaches at Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies and is a BBYO Jewish education consultant. 

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