If you celebrated Passover this year by avoiding leavened bread for the duration of the holiday, you probably enjoyed a delicious return to pizza, fresh bread, or oatmeal cookies (for the gluten-free among us) at the holiday’s conclusion. Yum! After a heightened awareness of our food choices for several days (that is, what can feel like forever), going back to our culinary favorites can bring a sense of limitless possibility. As a friend of mine put it, “I can go to Trader Joe’s and buy anything I want! I can go wherever I want and eat whatever I want!!!”
The same friend, after stating this, quickly backpedaled. “Wait… not quite… it’s still COVID.” Not all of our favorite restaurants – or, for that matter, our favorite activities – are available to us right now. And even if these particular constraints weren’t upon us, it still would be true that we can’t do literally whatever we want. We don’t have limitless time, or limitless money; our resources are finite – they will, at some point, run out.
As a community in recovery we have a particular awareness that we can’t just up and do whatever we want – at least, not without consequences. We could, at any point, make the choice to drink or gamble or binge or get back into an unhealthy relationship. We could do whatever we want; but as we continue to work a program of recovery, we continue to learn and re-learn that it is not best for us to do whatever we want. By staying away from substances and behaviors that have a particular appeal to our addicted and compulsive selves, we can live a fuller and richer life. By living within certain constraints, we can actually experience more of that sense of limitless possibility.
This week’s parashah features some of the most well-known, love-it-or-hate-it constraints in Jewish tradition: the rules about which animals are and are not kosher. Kosher land animals must both have split hooves and chew the cud; kosher water animals must have both fins and scales. When it comes to flying animals, our parashah provides a long list of no-nos including the eagle, seagull, and ostrich. And last but not least, our parashah specifies that insects (yes, insects) are kosher if they are winged, walk on all fours, and have jointed legs to leap with. (Grasshoppers, anyone??)
While most of us could easily go without barbecued seagull or roasted ostrich, there are some non-kosher animals that have more of an appeal. Giving up lobster, crab, shrimp, and the all-time non-kosher favorite, bacon – those are constraints that are harder to live by. Indeed, many people who are proud to be Jewish enjoy these non-kosher foods on a regular basis! So why keep kosher? What’s the point? Of course, like anything in Jewish tradition, there are many different answers.
For some who keep kosher, following these constraints is a powerful practice of remembering that we can’t just do whatever we want. As humans in bodies, we have to eat often – usually several times each day – and each experience of eating can be a powerful reminder that following constraints can give us a heightened sense of possibility. For some, the constraints of kosher food create a feeling of connection to other Jews, to the fabric of Jewish life and tradition, and to G-d. We learn that saying no to certain things can give us a uniquely full and rich experience of life.
And if you’re reading this as you munch on your breakfast bacon or your lunchtime crab sandwich – no judgment from me! You don’t have to keep kosher to understand that you can’t just up and do whatever you want, whenever you want. Any number of spiritual practices can teach this principle; for example, the practice of refraining from work on Shabbat, or the practice of working a program and staying sober.
For all in our community, Jewish and non-Jewish, addict and normie, may we be blessed this Shabbat with willingness to live within constraints – willingness set free through awareness and insight that saying no to certain things can open us to a heightened sense of limitless possibility.