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Parashat Shemini 5757
I Said Rav Yochanan, "Better the fingernails of earlier generations than the bowels of our own generation. [And if you would say that we are better than they, consider that] the Temple was rebuilt for them, and has not been rebuilt for us." (Gemara Yoma 9b)
The intention of Rav Yochanan's reference to fingernails and bowels, is to point out our insignificance, spiritually, in relation to those who lived before the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash. Even the least important part of our ancestor's bodies carries more spiritual value than the most important part of our own bodies.
However, Rav Yochanan's choice of metaphor demands our attention.
Why did he choose to compare "fingernails" to "bowels", rather
than, say, heels to heads? There is a deeper meaning to Rav
Yochanan's words than first meets the eye.
A kosher animal shows two signs of Kashrut: it chews its cud and its hooves are cloven. These two signs have a common element: they are a clear indication that it is not a beast of prey and that it is content with its lot:
A hunting animal does not chew its cud since it eats no vegetable matter, and meat is digestible without rumination. Once the prey is digested, the predator seeks new food, ever discontent and ravenous. A ruminant is content with whatever is already in its stomach, and makes it do double service. Secondly, a hunting animal possesses claws with which to tear its victims apart. A kosher animal is satisfied with the food its Creator brings forth for it from the ground. It has no need for claws.
The commentaries explain that non-kosher animals are forbidden as food because eating them influences man towards the undesired characteristics of a beast of prey: discontent with one's lot and the resultant exploitation of other creatures. Nothing is more antithetical to spiritual health than these character traits. "You shall not covet" is the last of the Ten Commandments, and the foundation for them all. Dissatisfaction with one's lot stems from a lack of true faith in G-d's providence.
Nearly all non-kosher animals lack both of these signs. The Torah details just four animals that have one sign but lack the other: the camel, the rabbit, the hare and the pig. The first three chew their cud but do not have cloven hooves. The last, the pig, has cloven hooves but does not chew its cud.
These four are singled out by the Torah not only because they are unfit for the Jewish table, but also because they represent four forms of *spiritual* impurity. The first three animals have the internal sign of Kashrut (chewing the cud) but not the external one. They represent the various manifestations of a frustrated spiritual nature, when one's inner essence is amenable to holiness, but is prevented from realizing itself by one's inappropriate external behavior. If one's behavior is exploitative of others (like that of a predator), then one's "hooves" -- his outer, visible nature -- have become "claws," even though one's inner nature remains potentially "ruminant," i.e., satisfied with its lot.
The fourth animal, the pig, has the external sign of Kashrut but
not the internal one. It represents a worse form of impurity: a person
whose outer behavior is expressive of holiness but who inwardly denies the
dominion of G-d. This person has "cloven hooves" instead of claws, but his
inner nature is that of a beast of prey. Claws would suit him better.
Like the non-kosher animals mentioned in the Torah, the first three kingdoms demonstrated the behavior of a beast of prey, seeking wealth and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. But within their hearts they believed in G-d and His providence. The Roman Empire, however, displayed all the external signs of commitment to spirituality. On the surface it was civilized, looked after human welfare, and preached justice and human rights. Inwardly, though, it believed in nothing but self-worship. After the destruction of the first Temple, the Bnai Yisroel were exiled among the first three of the four nations mentioned above. First they were exiled to Babylon, then they were placed under the dominion of the Persians, and yet later, under the Greeks, who maintained sovereignty over the Jews while the second Beit Hamikdash was still standing (see Gemara Megilah 11b, Avodah Zarah 9a). When the second Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, we became fully subjugated to the Roman Empire.
In light of the above Midrash, it is clear that Hashem chose our oppressors in a most befitting manner. The Gemara tells us (immediately before the quote from Rav Yochanan with which we started),
For what was the First Temple destroyed? For [the] three [cardinal] sins that were rampant then: idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder....
But in the times of the Second Temple [the Jews] were busily studying Torah and performing Mitzvot and acts of kindness -- for what then was *it* destroyed? Because they hated each other without cause. From this one may learn that unwarranted hatred is as great a sin as idolatry, immorality, and murder all together. (Gemara Yoma 9b)
The earlier generations suffered from serious evil in their external behavior, but in their hearts they acknowledged G-d's kingship. They simply could not control their lusts. Following the symbolism of the kosher and non-kosher animals, the earlier generations were like animals that have claws but chew their cud. The later generations, however, were like the pig: they showed their cloven hooves, but inwardly were unclean. Their society was filled with clandestine hatred and jealousy. Their hearts were rotten with selfishness and the resultant denial of G-d's dominion.
How fitting, then, that our oppressors after the destruction of the first Temple were the first three of the four nations, who demonstrated the behavior of the animals that have claws but chew their cud. They were granted power over the Jews, when the Jews sank to that level themselves.
When the *inner* corruption of the Jews became so great that G-d
was obliged to drive them from their land, the nation to which they were
enslaved was none other than the nation whose symbol the Torah gives as the
pig. Rome demonstrated all the external signs of Kashrut, all the time
inwardly worshipping nothing but itself and its own glory. It was a nation
that was the mirror of the values that the Jewish nation had lamentably
taken for its own. While living a life of suffering, dispersion, and
enslavement, they would have to reject the Roman value system from within
its very midst. By succeeding in this awesome task, they will have undone
the evil for which they were expelled from their land.
The test of the Roman dominion is the most difficult the Jewish people have ever faced -- and face to this very day. It comprises the most difficult struggle of them all: man's rejection of his self-worship. The struggle has gone on steadily for the last nineteen hundred years, as the Roman heritage of the Western world continues to dominate Jewish life in one form or another. It is carried out under the most difficult conditions which have ever challenged the Jewish people. Indeed, it is appropriate for the struggle to be a difficult one, for on this struggle hangs the fate of the world. When this last evil has been eradicated, humanity will finally realize the goals for which it was created.
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