Eternal links: kashrut, tzedakah and the Jewish calendar

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

Rabbi Josef Davidson

Though it would be ideal if all Jews could be once again residing in Eretz Yisra’el, that is not the case.  Jews live on every inhabitable continent in the world.  Jews have acculturated to life in galut (Diaspora) and the destruction of Temple, the center of Jewish religious life.  There has been much interchange between Jewish communities and their neighbors, even in times of oppression.  Yet, Jews have not disappeared into the background of history.  What have been the centralizing themes which have prevented this from occurring?

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, enjoins upon the Jewish people the observance of a number of obligations, the effect of which is to maintain the close relationships which the Temple engendered in its day.  Among these are the dietary laws, first listed in Parshat Shemini and repeated in this week’s Torah portion.  “You are what you eat” certainly applies here, as Jews are most conscious of our identities, of our mission and of our covenant as we sit down to dine several times each day.  Kashrut defines the Jewish people and imparts important ethical lessons as well, such as maintaining self-discipline, concern for causing physical pain and care not to produce emotional pain in others.

Tzedakah, the obligation to support those who have no means of self-support, is another one of those “ties that bind” from this week’s parashah.  Tithes, the treatment of indentured servants, care of the poor are outlined.  Tzedakah (what is just, fair and right), not charitas (what one does out of love), is the means by which the Jewish people are able to maintain our own and others in need, to protect those without means and without defense, to see to it that everyone eats, everyone is clothed, everyone has housing.  Being obligated to God means being obligated to care and provide for those created in God’s Image.

The calendar, too, is one of the means by which the Jewish people refuse to slip into that good night.  The Jewish calendar is distinct from all others, not only in its form (a lunar calendar that is adjusted to maintain a solar orientation) but in the holy days which are set aside to renew one’s relationship with God, one’s fellow Jews and all of Creation. 

The Jewish calendar establishes a rhythm to the week, to the passage of time and to the awareness of the wonder of seasons.  They link this to Jewish history and God’s involvement in that history.  So it is that the major Pilgrimage holy days of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot are tied not only to the seasons and to the harvests but to the seminal events in Jewish history, the wilderness experience, the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai.  These three holy periods tie into the main themes of Judaism, namely the manner in which God is perceived through nature, through Torah and through acts of Redemption.

Even though the Temple has been destroyed for nearly two millennia, the direction of prayer is towards its ruins.  It remains the focal point for the Jewish people, no matter where we may be found to reside.  However, the dietary laws, the obligation of tzedakah and the calendar provide more localized focal points for Jews where we reside now.  They provide Jews with a link to God, to each other, to Jewish history and to all of Creation.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef Davidson is adjunct rabbi with Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.