Not walls, fences.

Parashat Shmini

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the largest collections of dietary laws and regulations for keeping kosher in all of Torah. Read through the 47 verses of chapter 11 in Leviticus and you’ll learn that we aren’t supposed to eat bacon, ham or pork. The only sea creatures we are supposed to eat are those with fins and scales – rendering catfish, shark, and all shellfish treif. Bugs of all varieties are off limits – not a hardship, to say the least.

But the laws of kashrut don’t stop with what we find in the Torah. The commandment not to eat pork leads to a prohibition against anything baked with, or in, lard. The regulation of fish leads some authorities to say sturgeon and swordfish shouldn’t be eaten either. The instruction regarding insects is expanded to require a careful washing of all fruits and vegetables, especially leafy lettuce greens and intricately bristled broccoli, to make sure no creatures are surreptitiously hiding in our food – the very idea of which is guaranteed to keep me up tonight.

And none of these rules and regulations even begin to touch upon the elaborate system of protecting another commandment of kashrut found elsewhere in the Torah: “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” This obscure instruction leads to the separation of milk and meat, then the separation of milk and meat dishes, then a temporal separation of how long must pass after one has eaten meat before one can eat milk, and so on.

We often shake our heads or roll our eyes at the expansive series of “fences” rabbis throughout the centuries have created to protect the core practices of kashrut. I would venture that many, if not most, of us in the Reform community don’t keep kosher – and many, if not most, of us make that choice because we find the elaborate system to be burdensome and overly zealous.

And yet there’s something to be said for fences.

Like many of us, while I don’t keep kosher, I do follow the dietary practices of Passover – or at least the practices as they have evolved and become ritual in my family’s observance. And last Passover, like this Passover, I had faithfully refrained from eating chametz for six and a half days. We hadn’t removed all of the chametz from our home (much less burned it), but we had relocated much of it to designated not-kosher-for-Passover shelves in our pantries, and what wouldn’t fit there had been secured away either in the freezer or garage. In its place were enough boxes of matzah and macaroons to last our family through, not just that Passover, but perhaps all Passovers until the end of time. We ate matzah brie and matzah kugel, matzah pizza and matzah brittle… and we anxiously, eagerly awaited the end of what felt like an interminable seven days.

On the seventh day – when we could all but taste that first bite of bread with which we would end the holiday at dinner that night – our son had a special party at his school, a party at which cookies and cupcakes would assuredly be served. Stoically, he went off for his day with a few extra macaroons in his lunch bag – hardly the special treat his classmates would enjoy that afternoon, but he was committed to enduring the burden that occasionally is Jewish observance nonetheless. And, I’ll be honest, I was proud of him (as I often am).

Partly to recognize his commitment, partly to make the first post-Passover meal the celebratory occasion it felt it would be, I decided to go pick up a special dessert for the evening – a bundt cake, with that amazing icing, available in Mt. Pleasant. Having never been in the store before, I was a little overwhelmed about what to pick… Can’t go wrong with chocolate; lemon sounded sweet and amazing. But then there was white chocolate raspberry. I couldn’t imagine what that flavor would taste like as a cake, but how bad could it be, right? Then I saw there were samples, so I took a one… and took a bite… and then stood in the middle of the bakery realizing what I had done.

I had eaten cake.

On Passover.

While my son, at that very moment, resisted the temptations of cupcakes and cookies all around him.

I. Felt. Awful.

Was it an innocent mistake? Of course. Was I concerned about excommunication or eternal damnation? Not for a moment. I don’t even think I listed it among the sins for which I asked forgiveness on Yom Kippur the next fall. Did I worry about the wrath of my son? Yes – but he was incredibly, though not surprisingly, forgiving.

The thing is – yes, it was an innocent mistake, but it mattered to me. I broke a rule that I had determined was important to keep. And it was avoidable. A common sense “fence” to protect my Passover observance – not going into a bakery until the holiday is over – and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make the mistake.

As Reform Jews, it is often the elaborate system of fences that leads us to dismiss certain Jewish practices – whether it’s kashrut or Shabbat or some other highly regulated ritual. We dismiss it out of hand. But perhaps the most important take away as Reform Jews is precisely that elaborate structure – we just need to build it around that which we determine it is essential to protect. Reform Judaism grants each of us individual autonomy to decide which practices and purposes are at the heart of a meaningful life. Those may be different than the core principles of halakhic observance protected by Orthodox practice. But once we’ve determined what is important to us, we would do well to protect our choices with a similar structure of “fences” and safety mechanisms, as well. Just because we know it is important to do something, or avoid doing it – essential even – doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to follow through.

Consider the desire to power down from the ever-present devices that increasingly consume our waking attention and energy. Yes, they help us, perhaps, to connect with loved ones and issues around the globe; but they also inhibit us – and ever more so – from engaging with the people and community right in front of us. All of our phones come with power buttons, but how often do we use them? We let the screen go black, put them away in our pockets, but the first buzz, the first lull in conversation, and we bring them right back to life. I’m as guilty as anyone. Enter the Sabbath Manifesto organization and its National Day of Unplugging – and that day doesn’t even have to be Shabbat. Precisely because the temptation to turn to our technology is so great, or the unconscious reflex so strong, there’s something to be said for building a “fence” and removing the opportunity to do so, for however long and in whatever capacity you determine. Their “fence” comes in the form of a “Cell Phone Sleeping Bag,” but of course it could take many forms – turning our devices to the “off” instead of “sleep” positions; leaving them in a different room entirely; letting the power run all the way down, so we couldn’t turn them on again if we wanted to. We can be creative, but the important thing is if we determine a practice is important, sometimes we have to take an extra step or two to make sure we abide by it.

One of the clearest examples of this principle is in the giving of tzedakah. Jewish custom sets a range for charitable giving – generally from 3 to 20 percent of one’s income. It’s a pretty wide range, and we each have to determine what’s right for us… but how often do we do that? How often do we sit down and calculate, at the beginning of the year, how much of our resources we want to give to worthy causes? How many of us instead sit down, at the end of the year, and after a year of necessary and discretionary spending, then determine how much of the remainder we think we can comfortably give? Many of us set up automatic withdrawals from our paychecks so that money we know we want to set aside for retirement automatically goes to that purpose without ever entering our checking accounts. That’s a “fence” we put in place to protect what we know is an important principle and practice. Yet how important is it to support the needy? How essential to share our resources with those less fortunate than ourselves? Might we use the same approach for tzedakah – setting aside a portion of our wages before we even see them? It’s human nature to want and desire more – to look at our bank account and dream about one more thing, one more trip, one more experience we might have. It’s a difficult thing to make those decisions. Sometimes “fences” can actually simplify our lives.

But “fences” aren’t just important for protecting personal practices; they’re absolutely essential for societies as a whole. I wrote the following reflection a few months ago as I accompanied our Confirmation students on our annual pilgrimage to Washington D.C. and visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

One enters the exhibits … on the fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.

One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?

The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.

Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.

But they’re way too close for comfort.

There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.

When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.

What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?

Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.

The annual day of Holocaust Remembrance, Yom Hashoah, falls this coming Monday, and Charleston will hold its community commemoration on Sunday afternoon (details are in your announcement sheets). As two Jewish calendars intersect – those of Torah and history – this Shabbat provides a poignant moment to pause and reflect: Can we state what is most important for us to protect and uphold in our personal lives and in our society as a whole? Have we put enough safeguards into place to protect against transgressing those values and practices, not only intentionally but unintentionally, as well? Knowing how important those safeguards are, might we commit to stretching our “fences” even further?

That which is worth having, is worth protecting; and that which we commit to sustain, will sustain us, as well. May God who has taught us, “Guard yourselves well,” ever be with us, giving us strength and fortitude for the journey. Amen.

1 thought on “Not walls, fences.”

  1. Rabbi Stephanie, as always, your words make us pause and reflect. Thank you for continuing to remind us of what is important in life!


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