The Night That Changed Everything
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The Night That Changed Everything

A rabbi recalls the little boy he was, saying a tearful goodbye to his favorite TV dinners when his family decided to become more observant.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:19 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47
Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1-7:17
Havdalah: 8:20 p.m.

A year before his bar mitzvah, my older brother, Arnie, confronted our parents about a glaring inconsistency. This conversation would ultimately change my  family forever.

Like many families, our parents sent my older brothers to Hebrew School, Jewish camp and youth group. Arnie pointed out that while all of these Jewish experiences promote the value of an active Jewish life, including having Shabbat dinner with family and keeping kosher, our family did none of this.

Essentially, Arnie asked our parents about the value of his learning about a lifestyle that we seemingly had no intention of following.

This conversation concluded with a straightforward proposition: either let’s put some of what he was learning into practice, or stop making him attend classes and activities unaligned with our family values.

With little hesitation, my parents did the unexpected. They said: “Yes.”

My brother’s bold and sincere proposal activated within them a deep desire to take a spiritual step forward, and soon thereafter our family life began to change. We started turning Friday night into Shabbat, becoming regulars at Shabbat services and changing what we eat.

Only 5 years old at the time, I remember clearly the night our home became kosher. While I was perplexed by the scrubbing, boiling and unpacking of new dishes, what truly got my attention was when my parents started boxing up my favorite foods, especially Swanson’s TV dinners with those little apple pies.

Before I could even lodge a complaint, our non-Jewish neighbors showed up and quickly carted away these boxes filled with my favorite foods. It may be almost impossible for a child to understand that what was permitted just yesterday was prohibited today, so I just sat there and cried.

As the tears streamed down my cheeks, what was forefront in my mind was why it was so important to change what we eat, becoming kosher.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, directly addresses this question. It not only outlines the categories of permitted and forbidden foods, it also broadcasts clearly that these commandments are the cornerstone of a life of holiness.

That the laws of kashrut [Leviticus 11] follow an extended examination of the sanctification of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle, or Sanctuary), including the eating of sacrificial offerings at the Mishkan, invites us to reflect on the connection. Noticing this juxtaposition, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German sage, explains: “The preceding chapter teaches that the sanctification of life achieved by the Sanctuary culminates in the sanctification of physical pleasure.” In his eyes, a life of holiness is achieved through the food we consume, and our commitment to eating the prescribed food on the altar mirrors the spiritual necessity of consuming appropriate food at all times and in all places. 

While kashrut is unarguably a pillar of Jewish life, this juxtaposition teaches us more than just about one commandment, but rather about the importance of life beyond the boundaries of the Mishkan. Explicit even within the commandment to build the Mishkan — “Build Me a Sanctuary so I will dwell among them” — is the notion that God can be with us wherever we are.

In light of the human necessity for sustenance, kashrut is the perfect commandment to represent Jewish life in its totality, as well as to reinforce that what was practiced in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) needs to be aligned with what was practiced in the home.

The direct link between the communal center of holiness and the sacrosanct position of the Jewish home is reflected by the name given in rabbinic literature to the home. While the Temple is called the Beit HaMikdash, the house of holiness, the home receives the title of Mikdash Mi’at, the small sanctuary. The Jewish home, then and now, serves as an incubator of Jewish values, reinforced bite by bite at the family’s dinner table, compared to the altar by our sacred sources.

When my brother questioned our parents about the place of Judaism within our lives, many years ago, it became clear that what could have been construed as disrespectful was actually quite mature. His questions not only opened the door for our family to become more observant, but also changed our home forever into a Mikdash Mi’at, a small sanctuary.

What appeared to be the most perplexing and difficult night of my life many years ago when our home became kosher, turned out to be my earliest lesson in the purpose of Torah, the pursuit of holiness and power of the Jewish home.

It was actually the night that changed everything, and for this I will always be grateful.

Rabbi Charles Savenor is the director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. 

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