WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT SHEMINI-PARAH: 2011/5771
CONDEMNING FROM AFAR
Among the various topics addressed in the Torah reading of this Shabbat is a catalogue of non-kosher birds. These forbidden birds are listed in Leviticus, Chapter 11:13-14:
They shall be an abomination unto you from among the fowls; they shall not be eaten; they are an abomination; the eagle, the ossifrage, the osprey, the da’ah and the kite after its kind.
The word da'ah is deliberately not translated. This is because a parallel passage in Parashat Re'eh (Deuteronomy, 14:12) reproduces the list almost exactly - but with one strange variation. In the parallel passage, the da'ah bird of Leviticus is called the ra'ah.
This variant reading puzzled the sages:
Why is the da'ah of Leviticus called a ra'ah in Deuteronomy? Rabbi Avahu declared, "The ra'ah is the da'ah bird. Why, then, was its name rendered ra'ah [seeing]? This is because the ra'ah is a bird that can see from a great distance. It sits in Babylon and is able to behold the rotting carcasses [neveilah] of the Land of Israel." (B.T. Chullin 63b)
Rabbi Avahu's insight goes beyond a simple explanation of an inconsistency in the Torah’s lists of prohibited birds. Nor does he content himself with the observation that the bird was nicknamed for its unique farsightedness. His insight is also compelling on a metaphorical level. Only a very strange bird looks for ugliness and putrefaction thousands of miles away, when there is an abundance of ugliness and putrefaction close at hand.
According to Rabbi Avahu, this putrefaction-fixated bird is prohibited to Jews because it is exclusively focused on the ugliness of the Land of Israel, while overlooking the far greater ugliness of its native land.
Babylon was not without its seamier side. The sages lived there and knew its ugly side from painful personal experience. Its oppression, perversion of justice and indifference to the vulnerable and the poor were well known. However, it was astonishing that the Babylonians could ignore their own neveilot and be conscious only of the neveilah in the Land of Israel.
There is no shortage of neveilot in Iraq as Babylon is now known. But notwithstanding its corruption and the terror that continues to murder innocents in markets, mosques and funeral processions, its religious and political leaders stand in Babylon and criticize the neveilot of Israel—and hurl scud missiles at its citizens
Iran is even worse. Its President announces the utter destruction of the Jewish state and is developing a nuclear missile to accomplish his holocaust. In his view, the neveilot of Israel justify his evil response. But what of his own neveilot, the murder and torture of his critics, the detention of the opposition, and the export of terror throughout the Middle East? He personifies the repulsive ra’ah bird of this generation.
It is easy to gloat about all the other ra’ah birds of the Middle East. They have persistently focused on the purported neveilot of Israel and have introduced resolution upon resolution condemning Israel in the General Assembly, the Commission of Human Rights and the Security Council, but now the ra’ah birds are stripped naked. Their neveilot are on every television screen every day as their own populations revolt against their excesses and the putrefying carcasses of their moribund political system,
However, we cannot really gloat, for, in a sense to some extent we are all ra’ah birds. We far too easily overlook our own shortcomings and far too quick to criticize the shortcomings of others. In the laws of purity, on which the Torah will focus in the coming weeks, we learn that the priests diagnose impurity and, if appropriate, declare the individual impure. The Hebrew priestly declaration is : tamei, tamei yikra [he shall declare, “impure, impure!”]. But the Hebrew can also mean: “Tamei [the impure one] will declare the other person tamei [impure]. Before we condemn the ra’ah birds of others we should cleanse ourselves of impurity.