Parashat R’eih

Friday, August 14, 2020 /24 Av, 5780
Parashat R’eih Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

Dear Friends,

“You are what you eat,” the old saying goes. This week’s Torah portion includes a long list of animals that are and aren’t kosher. One such restriction lists scavengers and birds of prey as off-limits. Surely, we don’t want to compare ourselves to scavenging. We do not want to associate ourselves with seizing prey and carrying them away before we consume them. We aspire to kinder and more holy eating habits.

Among the long list of restricted animals, one off-limits animal is somewhat surprising: the chasidah. There is some debate over the identity of this bird. Rabbis have suggested that it is a vulture, heron, saqar, or another bird of prey. In the end, it was Rashi’s interpretation that would be widely accepted. A chasidah, he explained, was none other than a stork. The Hebrew name of this bird is rather curious. Coming from the same root as the word chesed, loving-kindness, we might ask why such a bird is off-limits. We may not want to be associated with birds of prey, but surely we do want to be associated with kindness and generosity. The Torah associates chesed with Abraham, the first Jew, because of the remarkable ways in which he exemplified these very characteristics. Why, then, wouldn’t we want to follow suit?

The stork was viewed as a pious bird in European culture because of its deep-seated kindness. Storks take care of one another. If a stork is hurt or in need, fellow storks would be there to take care of it. Being born into a stork family guaranteed that there would always be another stork looking out for you. There was just one problem.

There is a story, years ago, about a group of neighbors who wanted to form a Chesed society for one another. Deeply concerned for one another’s welfare, they wanted to create this group to help them organize Shabbat meals, clothing, and help people in the tight-knit community who were in need. They went to the Rebbi for his blessing. The Rebbi asked, “What if someone in the greater community asks for help?” “Well,” came the reply, “we will refuse. This group only cares for people in our community.” The Rebbi could not offer his blessing after all.

Similarly, as kind as the stork is to its own, it ignores the plight of other creatures, including distant cousins. It cares for its own, and only its own.

Chesed, our tradition teaches, should not have walls. It is a beautiful thing to be kind and generous with those in our circles, but it is not enough. In prohibiting us from eating the chasidah, our Torah calls us to think about the nature of our own generosity. What can we do to increase chesed in this world, not just for those with we share much in common, but also for those with whom we do not? Just as Abraham greeted every passerby with unmitigated kindness, may we be inspired to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail