The Added Importance of Keeping Kosher
Vayikra, 11:44-45: "For I am HaShem your God - you shall sanctify yourselves and you will be holy, for I am holy; and you shall not contaminate your souls through any teeming thing that creeps on the earth. For I am HaShem who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be a God unto you..."
Rashi, Vayikra, 11:45: sv. For I am HaShem who elevates you: "I brought you out so that you would accept upon yourselves My Mitzvot."
At the end of Shemini the Torah concludes its discussion of the laws of kashrut by reminding us of the fact that God took us out of Egypt. Rashi explains that God is teaching us a fundamental lesson; the whole purpose of the Exodus was so that the Jewish people would accept upon themselves the Mitzvot of the Torah. The Kli Yakar asks why the Torah should say this general point with regards to the laws of in particular, it is equally pertinent to all the mitzvot; accordingly he argues with Rashi.(1)
It is possible to answer this question using the following story. A Rabbi was once approached by a non-observant Jew; he wanted to increase his Torah observance by taking on one new mitzvah; he was prepared to observe either the laws of Shabbat or Kosher (kashrut).(2) Obviously, one should strive to observe all the mitzvot and not pick and choose, yet it was clear in this case that had the Rabbi suggested that he keep both mitzvot then he would have been unsuccessful. Moreover, the man may then have refused to observe anything new at all. Unsure how to answer this delicate question he asked a great Torah Sage(3) the question. The Sage replied that he should take on the laws of kashrut. This answer could seem quite surprising because the punishment for breaking Shabbat is more severe that that for eating non-kosher food. Yet the Sage explained that there was a deeper factor at work: When a person eats non-Kosher food he does not only transgress the Torah but he brings into himself the spiritual impurity that is contained in that food. This forbidden food causes what is described as 'timtum halev' which is literally translated as a 'blocking of the heart' On a practical level this means that a person's spiritual sensitivities are dulled by consumption of non-kosher food. Thus, committing this sin would make it very difficult for a person to increase his spiritual level further even if he was observing other mitzvot. Therefore the Sage explained that he should follow the laws of kashrut with the hope that this would facilitate an 'unblocking' of his heart and would enable him to ultimately increase his observance further.
We can now answer the Kli Yakar's question; he asked why Rashi explained that the Torah's exhortation that the purpose of the Exodus was to keep the mitzvot, came after the laws of kashrut in particular. It is possible to answer that the people needed to observe the laws of kashrut in order that they would be able to properly keep all the mitzvot. This is because without observing these laws they would suffer from timtum halev which would prevent them from properly serving God in other areas. Thus, the laws of kashrut serve as a kind of prerequisite to observance of all the mitzvot; accordingly, the Torah reminds us of the purpose of the Exodus right after the laws of kashrut because by observing these laws he would then be able to observe the whole Torah.
This explanation applies to each person in some fashion whatever their level of observance. For some, it teaches the importance of striving to observe all the laws of kashrut in order to keep our souls free of spiritual contamination, and that it is insufficient to only maintain a kosher home whilst eating non-kosher food out of the house. For others whom this is already a given, the lesson may be that not everything with a hechsher is necessarily acceptable to eat.(4) It is essential to clarify with a Rabbi well-versed in both the laws and the 'facts on the ground' with regards to what is reliable and what is not. For others, there may be a tendency to be more lenient with regards to what food one gives their children. Apart from the halachic questions involved, one Rabbi decried this practice given the fact that kashrut has such a powerful effect on our souls. And one final general lesson is that we must remember that observing the laws of kashrut should help facilitate our growth in all areas of Avodat HaShem by keeping our souls pure.
1. Kli Yakar, Vayikra, 11:44. See there for his alternative explanation of the verse. In truth, Rashi is quoting the Torat Kohanim, Ch.12:3. The Sifra, 170, offers the same interpretation as well.
2. Heard from Rav Dovid Orlofsky shlit"a. In another version of this story he added a third possible Mitzva: Family Purity.
3. In one version of this story the Sage was Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l.
4. Whilst this point is relevant everywhere it is particularly pertinent in Eretz Yisrael where there are a proliferation of hechsherim which are not necessarily reliable.