Shaarei Shamayim

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Today is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance before Purim. So let me ask the burning question on our minds today: Are giraffes kosher? Okay, maybe it’s not the burning question on our minds, but perhaps it should be because—as my friend and colleague Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg recently pointed out to me—a giraffe recently made news around the world in a way that coincides with the theme of Shabbat Zachor. 

Well, are giraffes kosher? Answer: yes! The Torah (Deut. 14:5) lists 10 animals that are kosher…the 10th one is the zemer—a giraffe. In next week’s parsha (Lev. 11:3) the Torah gives us 2 physical traits that every kosher animal must have: it must have split hooves and chew its cud. The giraffe has both! So, why don’t we eat it for Shabbos dinner? Some think it’s because we don’t know exactly where on its neck to slaughter it, but the truth is, the giraffe’s neck provides a better target than the neck of a cow! Perhaps it has something to do with cost or the taste, or just trying to catch it!

But I know of one giraffe that would have been very happy to have been killed by a shochet, a Jewish slaughterer, because a shochet is trained to cause the least amount of pain to the animal. Marius the giraffe was slaughtered in Copenhagen and made news around the world last month when Danish zookeepers decided that he was genetically incompatible for breeding. Marius was then chopped into pieces in front of zoo-goers, including young children, and fed to the lions. 

That very same week the Danish government voted to ban kosher slaughtering claiming that it was “cruel” to animals. In the words of the government: “Animal rights before religion.” This has now become a movement in several European countries—especially Scandinavian countries—where there is a growing outcry against Jewish circumcision and kosher slaughtering—all in the name of maintaining the dignity of Gd’s creations. And then, they go and publicly chop up a giraffe and throw its meat to the lions! I smell a rat in all this! Do they really care about the pain of animals, or of making Jews uncomfortable in their country? Their concern about animals at the expense of the Jews smells rather fishy. 

I thought of this when I read about how the Obama Administration is trying to keep the Israel/Palestinian peace talks alive even though Abbas and other Palestinians leaders have emphatically declared that they will never recognize Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish State.” In an amazing turn of positions, spokeswoman for the US State Department, Jen Psaki, stated in an interview that, “there is no need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state!” And just this past Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry told members of Congress that Israel’s insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a big mistake. Wow! Talk about smelling fishy!

There’s a new movie out called, “The Monument’s Men,” which tells how the allied powers in 1943 came to the realization that not only was Hitler exterminating the Jewish people but at the same time he was seizing their assets including priceless works of art for the German people. In response, the Roosevelt administration established a U.S. commission, “For the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.” To save these classic works of art, the allies diverted military resources, changed military plans for non-military considerations. And yet, when Jewish groups begged the allied powers to just bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, they were told that the allied forces could not divert military resources or change military plans. They 1st had to win the war. They could rescued their art, but not the Jews!

This is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, and we are commanded to remember and never forget what Amalek and all our enemies have done to us. And at the same time, we must make sure that what our friends say and do passes the smell test—Jewish survival depends on it.

Today’s Torah portion continues the description of the animal sacrifices that were brought in the portable Mishkan and eventually in the Temple. Concerning the animal offerings, the Torah (Lev. 6:8,14) tells us again and again that they are were a reyach nichoach laHashem, “a sweet smelling savor to Gd.”

This begs the question: Does Gd have a nose, a sense of smell? Does Gd care about the odor that comes from a sacrifice? The Ibn Ezra writes: “Far be it that the Almighty should smell or eat…the verse tells us that the worshipper is as pleasing to Gd as a sweet odor is to a human being.” The Midrash explains: “This comes to teach you that whether you’re offering an expensive sacrifice or inexpensive sacrifice…whether it is an animal or bird or meal…whatever it is, the main thing is to focus one’s heart toward heaven in sincerity.” What counts is not the sacrifice so much but to focus one’s heart toward heaven in sincerity.

You can’t bring a sacrifice and then, by your actions, give people reason to believe that it smells a bit “fishy.” You can’t make an offering and expect it to be accepted if people “smell a rat.” You can’t come out against kosher slaughter saying that you’re doing it to prevent cruelty to animals…and then go chop up an animal and feed it to the lions in front of children. And you can’t say you support Israel and then go and say there’s no need for Israel to be a Jewish State! Passing the smell test is no easy task. To do it, one must be honest and consistent in word and deed. And that’s why I have to say that many of Israel’s critics really stink!

Last week was “Israel Apartheid Week”—a special week dedicated to little Israel. Programs were sponsored in cities and campuses throughout the world denouncing Israel as an “Apartheid State,” calling for boycotts and divestments from Israeli products. And as they were condemning Israel, Syria was dropping barrels of bombs on its own people! Thousands in Syria are being starved to death! Turkey continues to occupy Cyprus…and China occupies Tibet. North Korea is accused by the U.N. of performing crimes against humanity on their own people. But only Israel gets its own week!?

Is Israel is beyond criticism? Not at all! Just read any Israeli newspaper. Israel has made its mistakes. But here is where things get a little “fishy.” Abraham Foxman recently announced that after 28 years, he’s stepping down as the leader of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman has proven that he has a great sense of smell. He could smell a rat when others didn’t see it. and so he said, “If Israel were to be included on a list with countries like China and Saudi Arabia to be boycotted for alleged human rights abuses, then I will argue that Israel doesn’t belong on such a list…But if the only country you want to single out is Israel…that’s anti-Semitism!”

When the American Studies Association came out in favor of boycotting Israel its President was asked why, with so many countries oppressing their own people, the ASA chose just Israel to boycott. She replied, “You have to start somewhere.” Now that stinks!

The recent Pew survey of American Jews points out the devastating fact that over 70% of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying. One reason we can’t stop intermarriage is because non-Jews love us! I understand that, but then I have to ask: Why is it that it’s usually the leaders in the liberal branches of Judaism who—when Christian evangelicals come out in support of Israel, saying they love Jews and Israel—these very same leaders tell us not to accept their support because they’re not coming out of a love for Jews…it’s because they want to convert us. If, when it comes to intermarriage, you say they love us…but when it comes to support for Israel you say they don’t really love us…then I say something doesn’t smell right about this. Could it be that liberal Jews’ opposition to Christian Evangelicals is not because of their theology but because of their politics—that they are mostly Conservative? It surely smells that way.

A major theme of Purim, as stated in the Megillah (Esther 9:1) is v’nahafoch hu, “things getting turned upside down.” Haman builds gallows for Mordechai, and is hung on those same gallows. Haman plans a fantastic reward for himself and instead has to bestow this reward on Mordechai. This Purim theme continues in our own lives. We buy bags of flour and baking goods to bake Hamantachen for Purim and almost immediately need to think about ridding our homes of chametz for Passover—especially all those Girl Scout cookies that mysteriously get delivered at this time of year.

This Purim expression, v’nahafoch hu, “turning things upside down,” reminds us that Gd can bring about a stunning reversal of a nation’s destiny in the blink of an eye. The nations of the world have tried again and again to distort and turn the truth upside down against the Jews. May Hashem, in our day as He did in the days of Mordechai and Esther, overturn the lies and distortions about us so that we, His people, can finally live in peace and security. Amen! 

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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