What does it mean to fully exist in the material world and the spiritual world? In other words, what does it mean to be fully a Jew? Curiously, the answer can be found in the fundamental Jewish concept of kashrut, a concept almost always associated with one of the most material aspects of life, food and eating choices.
Upon returning from the war against the Midianites, the Jews were instructed to purge the non-kosher food taste from each and every pot, pan and food utensil which had been taken as a spoil of battle. This instruction makes plain a fundamental principle of kashrus as taught in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 75b), that the manner used to remove the absorbed, forbidden, non-kosher taste demands a cleansing that is commensurate with how the non-kosher taste was originally imbued into the utensil. “Ke’bolo kach polto.” In the same manner that the taste of the food is absorbed by a utensil, so may the taste be purged. Everything that comes into the fire, you shall pass through the fire. Kashering a spit or grill can only be achieved by scorching with fire; kashering a pot used for boiling can only be purged with boiling water. Only then can one be absolutely certain that no residue of non-kosher remains. Just as heat always infuses taste into another material /substance, only heat can purge it; the more intense the heat, the more intensely the taste is absorbed and therefore the more intense the heat of purging.
This is of most important practical application. The ability to kasher utensils so that what had been non-kosher can be transformed into useful kosher kelim is a necessary prerequisite for living a kosher life. But is there an equally important insight to be gleaned from this instruction? Isn’t it true that Judaism teaches that every physical aspect of observance has a spiritual match as well? If so, what is the spiritual match to kashering?
When Elazar haKohen instructs the Israelites in kashering the Midianite utensils, he says, zos chukkas haTorah – this is the decree of the Torah. Such a universal statement for such a practical instruction! Clearly, this “practical application” suggests a broader lesson, one that encompasses the whole of the Torah.
But what can this lesson be?
Rav Moshe Feinstein addresses this question in his Darash Moshe when he states that these laws have universal Jewish implications. These laws apply to more than cooking utensils but to the entire Torah. Anything non-kosher can be uprooted and purged by using these same kashering principles. And not just “things” but people.
Anyone can “kasher himself” from sin. Just as placing non-kosher pots into boiling waters cleanses and kashers the pot, so too placing oneself into a proper, positive and motivating environment, allows one to be fully cleansed. While it may require a great deal of honest introspection to determine which method of kashering is appropriate for a given human vessel, the underlying guiding question must be, How did the vessel become “non-kosher”? The answer to this question defines the way forward.
How powerful this insight! Its clear message is, once one is committed to be kashered, anyone can be purged of even the most deeply-ingrained tarfus. How optimistic this Torah message is! It teaches us to never give in to despair. No matter how far the fall, there is a way to be purified, to be kashered.
The task may not be as straightforward as scrubbing or boiling a cooking utensil. How many times has someone responsible for the cleaning, scrubbing and then kashering of utensils cried out, “This is not worth the effort! I will just go out and buy a new one.”
It is a feeling well understood – and simple to satisfy. If, that is, the utensil in question is an inexpensive pot or pan. What if the utensil in question is used in an industrial setting? A spray dryer, pasteurizer, agglomerator, or tanker? Each of these costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. When confronted with kashering such a utensil, the industrial plant owner will insist on the OU expert spending all the time required to instruct and guide the correct kashering of that utensil. Replacement is not an option.
We go to extraordinary lengths to kasher an expensive utensil. How much more are we willing to do if it is a human being to be kashered, the crown of creation?
Our sages have taught that each human being is equal to the whole of creation. Each of us is unique and valued in God’s eyes. Even the human “monster” deserves compassion and sensitivity if he is willing to be redeemed. And he can be redeemed. It will not be easy, for kashering demands a process that matches the impurity. Heat for heat. Flood for flood. Tears for tears.
Zos chukas haTorah.
Redemption can be achieved.
This is the decree of the Torah.