Dean's Letter Shemini

Rabbi Gidon Goldberg's picture

Dear Parents,

I would like to welcome everyone back from their Pesach break and to thank Mrs. Frazier for arranging and overseeing our COVID test site that allowed us to return to in-person learning.

In Parshas Noach, when the Torah tells us that Noach took animals into his ark, it takes pains to add letters. The Torah tells us that “Noach took sets of seven males and females of each of the tohor (kosher) animal species, and a set of two animals from non-tohor (kosher) species” (Bereishis 7:8–9).

Rabbi Yehoshua explains in Pesochim that the posuk could have just said one simple word to describe the non-kosher animals: tomei (treif)! Yet to teach us the importance of clean speech it uses an elaborate Hebrew terminology – “animals that are not kosher” – instead of a simpler and shorter expression – “treif animals.” The Torah avoids calling creatures, even non-kosher ones, tomei (impure); rather, it labels them as “animals that are not classified as tohor.”

This week, however, the Torah is not as tempered. In Parshas Shmini, the Torah describes the laws of kosher and non-kosher. It specifies for us the signs and characteristics of kosher animals. Those that do not meet the specifications are deemed tomei. It does not label them as “animals that are not tohor.” It calls them treif! Why the curt classification? What happened to the gentle etiquette so beautifully expressed by Rabbi Yehoshua?

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky explains this concept with the following story: The governor of a group of small villages decided to make an official visit to one of the more backward farm communities of his province. The mayor of the village, a simple farmer who had no idea of either social graces or etiquette, received him. The farmer’s wife made tea, the water of which was scooped from a muddy stream and set to boil. Upon sipping the first bit of the dirt-filled libation, the governor immediately spit it out and shouted, “What did you serve me? This is terrible!” The governor proceeded to show the mayor and his wife exactly how to strain water through a cheesecloth to make a proper glass of tea. Amazed, both husband and wife accepted the advice gratefully.

A few weeks later, there was a fire in the village. Reports to the governor said that though there had been ample water, manpower, and time to contain the blaze, for some reason the fire had managed to destroy most of the town. The governor arrived at the home of the mayor to inquire what exactly had gone wrong.

“You see, dear Governor,” beamed the hapless mayor, “the men were going to use the muddy brook water to extinguish the blaze, but I stopped them! I showed them how to filter the water and remove the small rocks and dirt. Since your visit, we have never used filthy water again!”

“You fool!” shouted the governor. “You filter for tea, not a fire! When a fire is raging you must put it out immediately even with dirty water!”

The story of Noach is a narrative. The Torah can well afford to classify the non-kosher animals in a positive light. After all, for the sake of the story it does not make a difference if the animals are referred to as tomei or not tohor. The Torah chose the gentler way. However, when telling us to avoid eating animals that are not kosher, the Torah does not offer circuitous etiquette; it declares boldly, “They are treif!

We live in a world that is wrought with many dangers. Sometimes we must say “no” to our friends, our children, and ourselves, in a very curt and abrupt way. A particular action, behavior, or influence may be much worse than “not-so-good.” They are treif and must simply be stated as such. Although saying “no” may lack class, it may work.

There is a time and a place for every expression. When etiquette will work, it must be used; but when a fire is burning, and the situation demands powerful exhortation, any water, even if it is a little muddy, must be used!

We as parents must have the wisdom to know when something poses no danger and therefore can be sugarcoated. At the same time, there are times when certain influences or activities pose a spiritual danger. In those cases, as Rabbi Kamenetsky explains, there is no time for careful wording and the answer must be an unequivocal no.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman